Stress is an overlooked killer. It can lead to elevated blood pressure, heart disease and numerous other conditions. For people who already have a condition, stress can be particularly dangerous. There are many ways to relieve stress, including exercise, psychotherapy and meditation.
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The evidence is growing, however, that one method in particular is extremely effective in reducing stress over the long term. That method is Pet Therapy. Pet Therapy may include a clinical aspect or it may simply be ownership and care of a family pet. A substantial amount of research has shown that the presence of an animal is often more stress-relieving than the presence of humans. This reduction in stress can have profound consequences for the health of a person.
Are pets always stress relievers? No. For some, a pet can provide an additional burden to be coped with. Often people choose the wrong type pet for their life situation and personality. This can add unneeded additional stresses. Sometimes the additional work and expense of owning a pet can cause stress of its own.
Sometimes the attachment to a pet can actually work against stress relief. A person may worry so much about the welfare of the pet after the person dies or becomes infirmed anxiety levels can rise.
For some people, having a pet in the home can potentially cause health problems. Stress and health problems are intimately intertwined. Each causes and reinforces the other. People with compromised immune systems, for example, may have a greater risk of infection being around animals. Some people with allergies could be at risk at well. The degree to which conditions such as these are affected by having an animal in the home is not well known, but a certain number of people are definitely affected.
Ironically, there is some evidence that what appears to be a negative aspect of pets can actually be a positive for some. A University of Wisconsin-Madison study conducted by researcher James Gern made some interesting findings in regard to infants and pets:
“Dogs are dirty animals, and this suggests that babies who have greater exposure to dirt and allergies have a stronger immune system,” Gern says. (Davis, 2006)
The Benefits of Pets
It has long been thought that pets are a stress reliever. For many years, hospital personnel have documented improvements in their patients when animals are brought in by volunteer organizations. Now, empirical evidence is surfacing about how animals benefit both patients and people in general.
The actual physiological benefits of pets are becoming clearer with time. The State University of New York documented the health benefits of having a pet for married couples. It is one of many studies that have similar results. The following is typical of the results often found:
Couples without pets had higher blood pressure and heart rates, a strong sign that they were feeling more stress than the pet owners. (Allen, 2002)
These results are not coincidental. Pets remind us, very bluntly, to let go of our stress. Our stress is their stress, too. Their needs are simple and their appreciation of our care stimulates our nurturing instinct and reduces stress. Pets are not judgmental of us.
A study conducted by the UCLA Department of Health Sciences found that AIDS patients who own a pet are less likely to suffer from depression, a condition closely associated with high levels of stress (Rubak, 1999). The study was substantial, enrolling over 1800 subjects. In an article from UCLA Healthcare, the study results are explained:
“Pet ownership among men who have AIDS provides a certain level of companionship that helps them cope better with the stresses of their lives,” said psychologist Judith Siegel, a UCLA professor of public health and lead author of the study. (Rubak, 1999)
The benefits of pet ownership extend beyond patients. It can reduce the stress of everyone in the home. That, in turn, reduces the stress of each inpidual. The brief moments we spend with our pets may seem insignificant, but the long-term effect is often greater than we realize.
In a time when people are living longer than ever, and often dying of long-term chronic illnesses, spouses and children live under increased stress. Many care for an ailing family member for long periods of time. Research shows that pet therapy is not only beneficial to the patient; it is beneficial for the care giver as well. From a recent study:
After six months, those with dogs showed only a small rise in blood pressure when caring for their spouses, while blood pressure in the control group rose nearly 40mmHg on average. (Baker, 2000)
Pets also benefit human stress levels in more subtle ways. A pet can facilitate relationships between humans. It can reduce the natural tension levels humans experience between each other, serving as a distraction, conversation topic or source of humor.
What is it that causes us to feel this way about our pets? The ultimate cause of our physiological and psychological reactions is still a matter of research. A possible key that validates the role of pets in stress management may have been found by researchers at the Life Sciences
Research Institute in Pretoria, South Africa. Their findings include the following:
Our research has shown that people who interact with dogs have increased levels of oxytocin and phenylethylamine, hormones that produce pleasant feelings and a sense of well-being. (AVMA, 2002)
A Personal Experience
Surgery can be a traumatic experience both physically and psychologically. Several years ago I underwent a moderately serious surgery. The recovery was quite difficult and my life had to be put on hold. My mood changed and I was no longer willing to put on a happy face.
I appreciated the kindness of my visitors, but I felt alone in my pain. After my return home, I went straight to bed. The next morning I felt a moistness on my face as I awoke. I opened my eyes to see my dog staring at me with an almost human expression. The concern in his face was obvious.
At that point, it was almost as if I could feel the serotonin rush to my brain. I smiled for the first time in weeks. Suddenly I felt the need to comfort him, and my pain shifted to the background. That marked a turning point in my recovery. As I sat up, and then began to stand I would see him just checking on me. He began to insist that I play with him, no matter how I felt. I felt a strong sense that he knew what was going on and was trying to take care of me, the same way I had taken care of him for many years.
My mood to be alone eventually changed, and I began to relate to family and friends again.
Action Steps and Concluding Thoughts
It should not be assumed that pet therapy should stand alone as a stress management strategy. Although it has been found that pet therapy can be more effective than some stress reducing medicines, this does not imply one should be substituted for the other. Instead, a holistic approach to stress reduction stands the best chance of success. Pet therapy can be a valuable part of that approach for most people.
One can begin pet therapy as simply as petting a dog, feeding birds or watching fish swim. This is a perfect time to remind ourselves of the other stress relieving techniques we need to employ for the rest of the day. Those with health issues should consult a physician first, especially if they are not already used to being around animals.
Those considering pet ownership should not enter into it rashly. First, it must be determined if pet ownership is allowed or is restricted within their community. Then, research should be done to match a pet to the owners living situation and personality. Also, the requirements for taking care of the pet must be understood and budgeted for. Some people may find that owning pet is not for them. Taking these simple steps can greatly reduce the likelihood that the pet will cause additional stress. It will also insure a better life for the animal.
A pet can’t substitute for the human interaction we all need. That is why a person may still need other types of therapy to reduce long-term stress. A pet does provide several proven beneficial elements, like unconditional love and exercise, which can help us benefit from those other therapies. Reducing negative stress can be one of the best things we can do for our health. A growing body of research shows that animals can be powerful partners in that endeavor.
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