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Mental Health Awareness Week: How Owning a Dog or Cat Can Reduce Stress

This week is Mental Health Awareness Week, which creates an opportunity for each of us to think about Mental Health and Wellbeing.

Organised by the Mental Health Foundation. The Foundation has held awareness weeks on a yearly basis since the year 2000. Each year has a different theme.

This year's theme is Stress: Are we coping?

Research has shown that two thirds of us experience a mental health problem in our lifetimes, and stress is a key factor in this.

A variety of studies demonstrate that interactions with animals can actually decrease stress in humans. Playing with or interacting with an animal in an affectionate way increases the levels of the stress-reducing hormone oxytocin and decreases production of the stress hormone cortisol. These hormonal changes can help a nervous child feel more relaxed about reading aloud. Reduced stress can also benefit physical health. In a 2001* study, researchers found that pet-owning patients with high blood pressure could keep their blood pressure lower during times of mental stress than patients without pets.

A Dogs Trust survey, conducted just last year, found that 95% of dog owners in Britain believe that interacting with their dog made them happier, with 89% saying they talk to their dog when no one else is around. Whilst a recent scientific piece of research investigated how the purring of a cat is a stress-reliever and can be as effective as hobbies and social activities.

Here are a few ways owning a cat or dog can have a direct impact on limiting stress.

Mood improvers

It’s practically impossible to stay in a bad mood when an animal is around! There’s lots of research around to support this theory, including a recent study that found that men with AIDS were less likely to suffer from depression if they owned a pet.

Control blood pressure

Whilst there are drugs around to generally reduce blood pressure, they actually aren’t as effective as controlling spikes in blood pressure due to stress and tension. A study in the US, looked at a group of hypertensive New York stockbrokers who got dogs or cats were found to have lower blood pressure and heart rates than those who didn’t get pets.

Getting out and about

Dog owners spend more time walking than non-pet owners, given they need to take their dog for walkies, come rain or shine!  Given exercise is good for stress management and overall health, owning a dog can be acknowledged as increasing these benefits.

Socialisation

Having a dog makes the owner more approachable, as it provides an opportunity for people to stop and have a chat, in turn increasing the number of people we meet allowing us the opportunity to increase our network of friends and acquaintances. Daily interactions like these have great stress management benefits.

An antidote to loneliness

Pets provide a sense of companionship that people can’t. They offer unconditional love and also help owners enjoy comfortable silences. They are able to keep secrets, listen to your thoughts and feelings and are fantastic to cuddle up to – making them the ultimate antidote to loneliness.  One study found that nursing home residents reported less loneliness when visited by dogs alone than when they spent time with dogs and other people! All these benefits can reduce the amount of stress people experience in response to feelings of social isolation and lack of social support from people.

It’s important to understand that having a pet such as a cat or dog isn’t for everyone – it’s a big commitment. Pets do come with additional work, which can bring its own stress. For the majority of people however, the plus points of having a pet far outweigh the drawbacks.

Sources:

Evenson RJ, Simon RW. Clarifying the Relationship Between Parenthood and Depression. Journal of Health and Social Behavior. December 2005.

Siegel JM, Angulo FJ, Detels R, Wesch J, Mullen A. AIDS diagnosis and depression in the Multicenter AIDS Cohort Study: the ameliorating impact of pet ownership. AIDS Care. April 1999.

*Pet Ownership, but Not ACE Inhibitor Therapy, Blunts Home Blood Pressure Responses to Mental Stress - Karen Allen, Barbara E. Shykoff, Joseph L. Izzo