BUFFALO, N.Y., Sept. 24 (UPI) -- The presence of a cat or dog helps reduce stress when the pet owner is presented with a stressful task, a new study suggests.
In addition, pet owners with their pets present do not respond as strongly to stress as pet owners who do not have their pets with them and instead ask a friend to be present during a stressful task, researchers found.
"We've shown that the physiology is working in parallel with what people report is their emotional benefit from having pets," lead researcher Karen Allen told United Press International. Allen, a psychologist and research assistant professor at the State University of New York at Buffalo, said, "Although everybody says 'Oh yeah, pets are good for your health,' we don't know that and these studies help document it."
The researchers studied 240 married couples with normal blood pressure and recorded cardiovascular data with an automated device. Study subjects were given mental arithmetic tests involving subtracting sums from four digit numbers for five minutes.
Subjects with their pet in the room, when presented with the mental arithmetic problems, showed systolic blood pressure increases of only about 7 points compared with 35-point jumps for people who chose instead to have a friend present. Tested without the pet or friend present, both groups showed about a 25-point increase.
Heart beat rates also jumped more for people with friends present than with pets -- by about 30 beats per minute vs. about five.
Pet owners who had their spouse present instead of their pet showed significant systolic blood pressure jumps -- about 35 points more than when their pet was present. People with no pet had about the same reaction from having a friend present or their spouse, and pet owners had more stress reactions when their spouse was present along with their pet compared with the pet alone.
Another test involved immersing the hand in ice water for two minutes, which was seen as a more passive form of stress. Some benefit was seen from having a pet present with the passive cold water stress, though not as dramatic as in the arithmetic problems.
"For many people a pet is a friend, a pet is someone else that has expectations and that meets responses and provides warmth and care for people, someone who often gives unconditional positive regard," said Margaret A. Chesney, professor of medicine at University of California at San Francisco.
"It's consistent with everything we know about the effect of pets on people's stress systems and their health," Shelley Taylor, professor of psychology at University of California at Los Angeles, told UPI.
The study results will be published in the Sept/Oct issue of Psychosomatic Medicine.
(Reported by Joe Grossman, UPI Science News, in Santa Cruz, Calif.)