Your Pet and Your Health

Fri, 4 Nov. 2011 - 9:34 p.m. MT
Credit: ARA Staff - American Running Association

Studies stretching back three decades suggest that owning or interacting with companion animals can be good for your health, but recent research reveals even more about the complex ways these relationships play out.
Anthrozoös, a leading multidisciplinary journal that regularly examines the relations between people and “non-human animals,” is published quarterly on behalf of the International Society for Anthrozoology, which was founded in part to address the characteristics and consequences of these interactions. Several studies published recently in the journal look closely at not just your psychological and physical health as they relate to your pet, but as they relate to your pet’s health as well.
As noted in “Work Stress” in this issue, previous research has shown that pets can reduce stress. Stroking a cat can lower blood pressure and even cholesterol levels in the long term, improving cardiovascular function while inducing the release of endorphins in the cat owner. Similarly, “therapy dogs” are routinely used nowadays to help treat a variety of psychological as well as physical conditions.
But one new study looked at whether you benefit equally from interaction with an unfamiliar dog as with your own pet. A group of adult dog owners, half of which specifically owned therapy dogs, were made to interact with either their own therapy dog or an unfamiliar therapy dog for 30 minutes after performing a “stress task.” Monitoring the subjects’ physiological stress response afterward while also asking them to self-report provided some unexpected results.
Bio-behavioral stress response was measured by systolic and diastolic blood pressure, heart rate, cortisol and alpha-amylase levels in the saliva, and by self-report. Although the therapy-dog owners reported perceiving less stress and anxiety, greater reductions in physiological measures were observed in the dog owners who interacted with unfamiliar therapy dogs.
Physiologically, reductions in stress were seen following all dog interventions. (This was expected—the researchers weren’t measuring dog interaction versus no interaction, after all.) Both groups also self-reported stress and anxiety reductions. Furthermore, these physiological and psychological reductions in stress resulted in levels lower than the baseline, not just lower than the elevated, post-stress-task levels. And positive attitudes toward pets in the total sample of dog owners were associated with decreased levels of self-reported stress, salivary cortisol, and systolic blood pressure.
So the take-home message isn’t that you’re better off with a strange therapy dog than your own, but rather that even strange dogs provide terrific stress relief, to the point where the physiological measures can even rank them slightly better in individual studies.
A study of 351 people aged 20 to 80 published a few years ago in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine found that on average, dog owners spend a far greater amount of time performing moderate physical activity than non-owners.
While study participants without pets reported walking an average of 168 minutes per week, dog owners in the study walked an average of 300 minutes per week—nearly double. The research suggests that dog obligation functions as a mediator between owners and physical activity. The researchers found that for many people it seems easier to exercise when responsibility for a third party is involved. And this is precisely the finding of research published last March.
Pet Health
Until now, few if any studies have looked at the link between care for sick pets and owner health. But a group of Canadian researchers has focused on pets with diabetes, and found that providing veterinary care for a pet may improve your own health as well. The group conducted a series of interviews with pet owners who had treated dogs and cats for diabetes. One participant, herself with type 1 diabetes, learned a short time ago that her cat was also diabetic. The two now cope with it together, with tandem blood monitorings and insulin injections. The study reports that patients like these report being more vigilant about their own condition because they think of their pet’s condition frequently. The benefits also include, in many cases, increased knowledge about the disease.
Somehow, when someone else’s health is at stake, it is easier to focus on doing the right thing. And for legions of pet owners, that someone is the family pet, which they view as nothing short of another family member. The study interviewed several pet owners who indicated they are more diligent about exercise for their pet’s sake—if the dog needs exercise, you’re more likely to go outside, together, and do it.
This research parallels the two-way health benefits of pet ownership seen in studies involving owners concerned with the health of their parrots. One 2005 study found some parrot owners gave up smoking so they didn't harm their pets with secondhand smoke, while a 2003 study found that owners began eating more fruits and vegetables, initially purchased for their parrots.
Other research shows the company of pets can ease loneliness, but the journal Anthrozoös finds that the issue can be quite nuanced.
Most published work on the psychological health of pet owners living alone has focused on the senior population. Using a community sample of 132 adults who were living alone, the new study measured loneliness and depression while examining the interplay of three separate factors: pet ownership (pet vs. no pet), emotional attachment levels to pets, and amount of human social support.
The subjects, which included dog and cat owners as well as people without pets, completed an online survey containing measures of these three factors, plus measures of loneliness and depression. Results revealed that neither pet ownership nor attachment to pets predicted the loneliness or depression levels of individuals living alone. However, when the researchers looked at the interaction of pet ownership and human social support while predicting psychological health, it became clear that dog owners with high levels of human social support were significantly less lonely than non-owners.
Furthermore, when they looked at pet emotional attachment and human social support in the prediction of psychological health, they found that among pet owners with low levels of human social support, high attachment to pets predicted significantly higher scores on loneliness and depression.
These findings highlight the complex nature of the relationship between pet ownership and psychological health. Perhaps they suggest that pet ownership is not enough to prevent loneliness and depression, but when social interaction in a community is readily available, pet ownership can dramatically enhance one’s happiness.
Anthrozoös, 2010, Vol. 23, No. 1, pp. 5-20,; pp. 37-54,; pp. 79-91,
American J. Preventive Med., 2006, Vol. 30, No. 2, pp. 131-136

(RUNNING & FITNEWS® January / February 2011 • Volume 29, Number 1)

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