Having a pet isn’t for everyone, but if you are an animal lover, you may be able to look to your furry (or feathered or scaled) friends for stress relief.
If you share your home with a member of the animal kingdom or spend time with animals, you probably already know that you can rely on these companions; they’re there whenever you need a friend, they never judge, and they can respond when you want to be playful or just have a good cuddle. These bonds can be so strong that, over the years, researchers have even dedicated studies to the health effects of spending time with animals. The results: Stress relief is one clear benefit—among many—of pet ownership.
If you turn to an animal companion in times of stress, you’re not alone. When a study measured the way the human cardiovascular system responded to stress (a response known as cardiovascular reactivity) researchers found that people who owned pets had significantly lower cardiovascular signs of stress (including blood pressure and heart rate) than people without pets. When participants were tested in the presence of a spouse, friend, or pet, those with pets had the lowest signs of stress, meaning that pets acted as stronger stress relievers than human companions.
Another study looked at blood pressure in response to stress among people who did and did not have pets. The researchers compared both groups during and after treatment with blood pressure medication known as ACE (angiotensin-converting enzyme) inhibitors. After measuring blood pressure and heart rate response to stress on a daily basis, they found that people who owned pets had significantly lower responses to mental stress compared with those who didn’t have pets.
With stress a common concern for so many of us and linked to such health problems as high blood pressure, heart disease, obesity and, diabetes, ways to manage it are essential to our well-being. So if you have a pet, know that your animal companion is playing an important role in protecting your long-term health.
And a note to those of you who don’t have pets: As wonderful as their companionship is, an animal in the house may not be the best way for you to manage stress. Before you take the plunge into pet ownership, be aware that taking care of an animal can also cause stress. If you’re not sure about how you’ll manage, consider spending some time with a friend’s pet or visiting animals at a local animal shelter before welcoming one into your home permanently.
 Allen K1, Blascovich J, Mendes WB. Cardiovascular Reactivity and the Presence of Pets, Friends, and Spouses: the Truth about Cats and Dogs. Psychosomatic Medicine. 2002 Sep-Oct;64(5):727-39.