You've had a bad day at work, and you're spoiling for a fight with someone, anyone. You walk in the back door after a long commute, and your dog runs to greet you, wagging his tail and almost grinning in response to seeing you, his favorite person. Suddenly you smile as you bend down to pet his head and scratch behind his ears. Your difficult day doesn't seem nearly as bad now, and you go on to have a pleasant evening with your canine companion.
The change in your behavior brought on by your dog's companionship has been documented in many studies. One such study, cited in the Journal of Psychosomatic Medicine, involved 240 married couples, half of which owned pets and half that did not. Researchers at the State University of New York at Buffalo asked subjects to perform two tasks: figuring out a difficult math problem in their head and submerging their hands in ice water for two minutes. Some subjects were alone while performing these tasks, while some had company in the form of a spouse, friend or pet. The study found that subjects who performed the tasks without pets had, on average, higher blood pressure and heart rates, signs that may indicate a higher stress level.
Researchers offer several reasons why pet animals--anything from dogs to cats, birds to fish, and hamsters to reptiles--can affect our attitude and behavior. These include:
- Unconditional love and acceptance. Your dog doesn't care how you look, how much money you make or what type of car you drive. Your dog accepts you for you and loves you no matter what.
- Distraction from upsetting thoughts. The upbeat attitude of your dog or the persistent purring and kneading of your cat can effectively divert your attention from what troubles you.
- Power of touch. Other studies have shown that petting a dog or cat can reduce blood pressure and decrease levels of cortisol. The act of hugging your pet can also release oxytocin into your blood stream.
- Responsibility. Your dog or cat needs you, literally. He depends on you to feed him, clean up after him, perhaps walk him daily. Psychologists believe that caring for another creature helps build self-esteem in patients suffering from depression, and can bring structure to a patient's day.
Recognizing the benefits that interaction with pets can bring to all types of patients, several organizations connect trained volunteers and well-behaved pets with hospitals, convalescent homes and other medical offices. One such group, Pet Partners, is a national registry that trains volunteers and screens animal-handler teams.
Pet Partners is "dedicated to improving people's health and well-being...through positive interactions with animals." Certified animal-handler teams visit hospitals, schools, nursing homes, child welfare facilities and other groups for more casual animal-assisted activities or animal-assisted therapy scheduled by a health professional.
Some of the goals of these programs include:
- Reducing physical and psychological pain
- Improving self esteem
- Enhancing a sense of purpose
- Increasing feelings of optimism
- Reducing fear, anxiety and agitation
- Lessening loneliness and feelings of isolation
- Encouraging interpersonal involvement
Service dogs can be trained to assist persons suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, panic attacks or depression, according to the International Association of Assistance Dog Partners. Some common tasks for these types of service dogs include reminding human partners to take medication, waking the partner to ensure he or she goes to work or school, and providing tactile stimulation to prevent emotional overload, whether through licking, nudging or snuggling with the human partner.
Do the programs help people deal with depression? A number of studies show the physical benefits of interacting with animals, such as lower blood pressure and reduced heart rate, and plenty of anecdotal evidence points toward the positive effects of interaction with pets. For more information on animal-assisted therapy, go to www.petpartners.org; for information about service dogs, visit www.iaadp.org.