Today 71.4 million households in the U.S. own at least one pet -- that's 62 percent of the U.S. population. This "pet generation" has long known what science now proves -- pets are good for our health, especially when it comes to stress reduction.
When stress accumulates, it increases a myriad of health problems. Stress can actually be physiologically measured because your mood is affected by hormones and chemicals released in response to stress. Here's how it works.
Having a pet is a stress buffer and the closer the bond, the greater the relief. Within 15 to 30 minutes in the presence of a cat, dog or even swimming fish, your body responds. Levels of the hormone cortisol drops and the "feel good" chemical serotonin increases. Some doctors now actually recommend patients get a pet -- a furry prescription!
Reduce Blood Pressure
Drugs like ACE inhibitors reduce blood pressure, but they may not be effective as pets for spikes in blood pressure due to stress and tension, according to one study. A pet in the room lowers blood pressure with no drugs needed. It doesn't even have to be your pet. And pets won't have the side effects that come with some drugs.
Studies by researcher Erica Friedman showed that simply having a pet in the room, not even touching him, decreases the stress response. Medical researcher Karen Allen studied New York City stockbrokers suffering from high blood pressure and found that those with a dog or cat suffered only half the blood pressure increase of those without. Even if the pet wasn't present, the owners still benefited.
You'd think that having a supportive human friend present would help when faced with a challenging task. The opposite is true, though. People engaged in stressful tasks have the worst performance and greatest stress when with a human friend, better performance and less stress if alone, and the least stress and best performance when a dog is present. This pet effect happens because animals don't judge our performance, which takes off the pressure.
Children going through the stress of a divorce also benefit from the presence of a friendly dog -- and so do their moms. Researcher James Lynch believes that a big advantage to pets as stress busters is they don't talk. The act of speaking dramatically increases blood pressure, but medications do not block this effect. One thing that can counter elevated blood pressure that results from talking is focusing on something outside yourself -- like a pet.
Heart Health Protection
Friedman also looked at survivors of heart attacks, and found that those who owned a dog were eight times more likely to survive one year after a heart attack. In a similar study, although patients without pets represented less than half the sample, they accounted for four times more deaths. The pet effect may have helped patients to live longer. Part of that effect has to do with the stress connection on arterial plaque buildup that can predispose individuals to heart diseases.
Owning a cat also reduces your risk of a heart attack by as much as one-third. This conclusion came about after a 10-year study of more than 4,000 Americans by researchers at the University of Minnesota's Stroke Institute in Minneapolis. In another study, cat owners appear to have a lower risk of stroke, perhaps because felines have a more calming effect on cat lovers than other animals do. When a cat becomes the focus of interest, owners worry less about other things that elevate their stress levels.
Medicine alone doesn't address pain, because there's an emotional response -- suffering -- that makes the perception of pain worse. Worry about loss of work, disability, isolation and spiritual concerns ramp up stress even more, increasing pain as a result. Pets provide a powerful anxiety relieving effect that actually lowers the pain threshold, but without the side effects of Valium.
Physical contact with a pet can block the transmission of pain. PET scans have measured this effect, showing that the touch of a pet can shut down the pain-processing centers of the brain.
The ancient Aztecs knew about this pain relief. They believed the hairless Xolos could heal and in fact these canines crave cuddling and feel warmer than pets with hair. Heat provides relief from pain by increasing blood circulation and allowing tissues to stretch, meaning less stiffness and greater flexibility. So today, just as in Aztec times, Xolos are being used as pain therapy particularly for people with arthritis and fibromyalgia syndrome.