Dogs Can Help Us Deal with Stress

When Jerry Greider lost his job and spent three months looking for work, it was a rough period in his life. "I spent a lot of time going on job interviews and sending out resumes, with nothing panning out," the Seattle resident recalls. "Some days, the only thing that kept me smiling was my dog licking my face and wagging his tail. And often that was just what it took to put me in a positive frame-of-mind before an interview."
Rachel Rushing, of Indianapolis, Ind., says when she's fighting the blahs, all she has to do is watch her three kittens playing together. "They like to jump in and out of paper bags and hide behind furniture, as if they're playing a game of hide-and-seek with each other," she says. "It's really entertaining. If I'm having a bad day, I can't help but feel cheered up watching them play."

Most pet owners would agree: On days when you feel depressed, hopeless, down, lonely, sad, discouraged, or just have the "blahs," spending time with a friendly dog or cat can be a real pick-me-up.

Then there are the documented health benefits of pet ownership. Many studies have proven the link between a healthier, longer life and pet ownership (For more information on the benefits of human animal bond, please see the article Pets a Calming Influence on People With High Blood Pressure.) Though the studies have largely focused on the effects of dogs and cats, other species provide benefits as well. Keeping a pet can give you a sense of purpose and the feeling of being needed, a feeling that is especially important for people who live alone.

And coming home to your family, whether you have one pet or many, gives you something to look forward to.

"Watching your pet's silly antics can make you laugh and help relieve stress," says David Frei, spokesperson for the Delta Society, a nonprofit organization interested in relationships between people and animals. "Pets take away the tension that's in your daily life, whether it's for work or family-related problems. When you see a dog looking at you with his big, brown adoring eyes, that brings a certain relaxation to people."

Decreased Feeling of Loneliness

Pets decrease feelings of loneliness and isolation, explains Alan Beck, Ph.D., director of the Center for Human-Animal Bond at the School of Veterinary Medicine at Purdue University. "A pet is someone to share your life with," he says. "There's a lot of people in this world who live alone. As a society, many of us live in apartments in big cities. We may not know our neighbors. We may be separated geographically from our extended families. Maybe we're divorced or widowed and live alone. And so for people in these circumstance, pets can help fill the 'people void' in their lives."

Many people relax by watching their fish as they swim serenely around a scenic aquarium. The multicolored hues can be mesmerizing and has a soothing effect. The same is true with a bird, reptile or amphibian.

Psychologist Judith Siegel, a professor of public health at UCLA, conducted a 1999 study showing how pets help one group of people in particular fight depression: male AIDS patients. "Pet ownership among men who have AIDS provides a certain level of companionship that helps them cope better with the stresses of their lives," Siegel says.

In a survey of more than 1,800 homosexual and bisexual men, Dr. Siegel and her team of researchers found that men with AIDS who had dogs or cats were about 50 percent more likely to report symptoms of depression than men without AIDS. But men with AIDS who did not own a pet were about 300 percent more likely to report symptoms of depression than men who did not have AIDS.

Dr. Siegel says her study, one of the largest ever undertaken on pet ownership and depression, shows "there really is something psychologically beneficial about owning and caring for a pet." The benefit is especially pronounced when people are strongly attached to their pets and have few close confidants, she adds.

"Pet ownership is not necessarily a substitute for human support," Dr. Siegel says, "but it's another way to express and receive love." And that may be just what it necessary to make a difficult situation a little more bearable.