Stressed, Lonely, or Depressed? Could a Pet Help?

Pets and physical responses to stress

Getting a pet may be just what a doctor might order to help overcome stress, loneliness, and depression.

For reasons not completely understood, we need animals as much as they need us.

  • Scientific studies have confirmed anecdotal evidence that pets can play a role in taming physical responses to stress. Blood pressure is shown to drop sharply when people merely rub a cat or a dog. The presence of a loved pet can have a calming influence on blood pressure and heart rate, especially when performing a task that might induce physical and mental stress. Even watching fish in an aquarium can reduce anxiety in dental patients waiting for oral surgeries.
  • Pets can be great buffers against everyday stress, thereby improving long-term physical and mental health. After a hard day at work, playing with a pet can be an effective way of unwinding and reducing stress. Around the world, more delighted frenzies are welcoming people at the end of their hard days at work. An estimated 63% of American, 43% of British, 20% of Japanese, and 60% of Australian households have pets. The proportion of households with pets is growing in India, China, and other developing countries as the burgeoning middle-classes have greater disposable incomes.

Pets and children

  • Pets can be a great source of nurturance for children. Pets can provide children with many formative experiences in caring for others, including, possibly, the first glimpse of death and the chance to cope with the loss of a loved one.
  • Pet and companionship Pets are non-judgmental and accept their owners without qualification. They provide unconditional love and companionship. Having dogs encourages their owners to get out often, exercise, and meet more people. One study showed that people in wheelchairs got much friendlier responses in public places when they brought along their dogs.
  • Pet ownership can be a gratifying surrogate for human companionship, especially for people with limited social support systems. People with pets cope better with the impacts of adverse life events. At nursing homes, visiting therapy dogs lift the spirits of elders who tend to be sad or withdrawn.
  • The mere presence of somebody—even a pet—that one can care about can bring about a sense of purpose and great joy. [Look at this touching chronicle of an 87-year old grandmother in Japan and her beloved cat.]

Idea for Impact: Consider adopting a pet

Plenty of cats and dogs at humane shelters may die if not adopted. Choose a pet that fits your lifestyle. Understand that owning a pet is not for everyone; pets involve additional responsibility, which can be added-on stress. If your circumstances do not allow you to own a pet, offer to walk a friend’s dog regularly, babysit a vacationer’s cats, or volunteer at an animal shelter, clinic, or pet store.

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