Decrease your stress by adding a pet to your life. Having a pet has been shown to decrease blood pressure, improve overall health, and decrease both sick days and doctor visits. If you can afford to have a pet (both in terms of financial commitment and time) it may help you live a longer, healthier life.
Why pets may be good stress busters
In a 2012 review article in Frontiers of Psychology Andrea Beetz and co-authors Andrea Beetz, Kerstin Uvnäs-Moberg, Henri Julius, and Kurt Kotrschal looked at 69 original studies concerning the effects of human-animal interaction (HAI) and the oxytocin system (OT).
Here we have what appears to be the effects in both mind and body from something as simple as owning (or even interacting) with a pet such as a dog or cat. More studies looked at dogs, but there were a few cats in the mix and even a few birds and fish. Effects for birds and fish were a bit less strong since the studies they looked at did not allow for human-animal contact only viewing.
In terms of mental benefit they detail a number of studies of school aged children (mostly pre-school up to 1st grade) with a dog in the classroom. The bulk of the studies they looked at showed-
- Decreases in aggressive behavior
- Positive effect on empathy
- Improved social attention
- Improved interpersonal interactions
Effects in the adult populations were similar. They mostly looked at older people and people with dementia. This is where the birds and fish came in showing that just being able to watch birds in an aviary and look at fish in an aquarium had positive effects on restlessness and improvements in mood.
They also found studies highly suggestive of a positive relationship to stress reduction as well as reduction of fear and increase in trust. Since most of the studies were with dogs it must be noted that subjects in the studies did not have an aversion to dogs.
Well you may say “that’s awesome” but what about the body you mentioned earlier. Well they also detailed studies that indicated benefits to our body overall. These benefits include-
- Reductions in overall blood pressure
- Decreases in heart rate
- Increases in heart rate reactivity.
These effects were better with one’s own pet, but the effect occurs with non-familiar, friendly animal interaction as well. As little as 5-15 minutes of stroking a dog showed effects. That’s a pretty powerful effect.
Human-Animal Interaction also had a subjective decrease in anxiety and fear in subjects. Some studies also looked at pain and noted that individuals with a dog often used less pain medication and had fewer overall doctor visits.
But That’s Not ALL!
An Amazing Hormone
The peptide hormone called oxytocin is produced in the hypothalamus and released into the circulatory system via a network of oxytocin containing nerves through sensory stimulation. Oxytocin has many effects on the human body, but particularly increases
- Eye Contact
- Social Skills
- Positive self perception
Oxytocin also deceases depression and counteracts aggression.
Oxytocin has great benefits for the body as well. And warning….this might start sounding familiar.
- Decreases blood pressure
- Increases the function of the parasympathetic system
- the parasympathetic system works as a brake on the sympathetic system, so better function is a really good thing.
- Decreases subjective experience of anxiety
- Subjects report feeling better
Tying It ALL Together
So how do pets and oxytocin interact? Well it’s conjectured that given the effects of Human-Animal Interactions that pets are actually causing this to occur in the body, though there are no definitive studies showing causation there is so much overlap that there is a growing belief that the two are indeed connected. In fact in one study just making eye contact with your dog was sufficient to show changes in oxytocin production. How cool is that?
So it seems that pets can and do decrease stress. I have seen this in my practice. It’s so amazing to see people change in their mood and stress levels after getting a pet.
So, if you can afford one (and I recommend checking your local animal shelter) both at the beginning and through the animal’s life. And if you have the time to spend with your pet I wholeheartedly recommend adding a pet to your life. Not only will you likely feel less stressed, but you just might live longer as well!