The human-animal bond has done it again. According to a new study, a furry friend may do more to help one's stress level than a spouse. People's heart rate and blood pressure are affected less while performing stressful tasks when they are in the presence of their pet vs. their spouse.
"Over years and years, if you have something good like that in your life, every day, it has to be a good thing," said study leader Karen Allen, PhD, a research scientist at the State University of New York-Buffalo.
Dr. Allen investigated the stress levels of 480 people, while alone and in the presence of various combinations of friends, spouses, and pets, as they performed two tasks commonly used to study stress: completing a series of mental arithmetic problems and submerging a hand in ice water for two minutes. An electronic monitor recorded participants' heart rate and blood pressure at baseline and then once each minute during the tasks.
The study, reported in the Sept./Oct. 2002 issue of the journal Psychosomatic Medicine, involved 240 heterosexual married couples; half the couples had a single pet, and the other half had not had a pet for at least five years. Participants who did not have pets identified a same-sex close friend to participate in the experiment, which took place in participants' homes.
Individuals performed the stress tasks in one of four randomly assigned conditions: alone; in the presence of the pet or friend; in the presence of the spouse; and in the presence of the spouse and pet or friend.
The study revealed that pet owners had, on average, a significantly lower baseline heart rate and blood pressure than other participants, reacted less on stress tests, and returned to baseline levels more quickly. Cats and dogs were equally beneficial, and researchers did not find major personality or demographic differences between pet owners and nonowners that could account for the differences.
During the math challenge, non-owners had the lowest reactivity—change in heart rate and blood pressure—when they performed alone, and the highest reactivity in the presence of their spouses.
Pet owners also had the highest reactivity with their spouses present, but the addition of a pet significantly reduced this reactivity.
During the water test, pet support was also associated with the lowest reactivity, although the presence of spouses and friends was not as detrimental as during the math tests. Nonowners reacted the least when alone.
One explanation for the beneficial effects of pets could come from the research of Dr. Johannes Odendaal, a researcher at the Life Sciences Research Institute in Technikon, Pretoria, South Africa. Dr. Odendaal's research has shown that people who interact with dogs have increased levels of oxytocin and phenylethylamine, hormones that produce pleasant feelings and a sense of well-being.
But Dr. Allen believes the explanation lies in the fact that people think friends and spouses are somehow evaluating them, whereas pets are seen as nonjudgmental supporters.
"For our participants, although spouses and friends may have meant well and tried to provide support, they were not perceived as nonevaluative," Dr. Allen said.