Earlier this month, even with final exams bearing down on them, nearly 1,000 students at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond turned out for an event called Paws for Stress and a chance to pet and play with therapy dogs.
Some folks might find this surprising, but to researchers who’ve been exploring the nuances of human-animal connections, it makes perfect sense.
When fingers meet fur, people tend to relax and feel less stressed, says Steven Feldman, executive director of the Human Animal Bond Research Initiative Foundation, a group funded by the pet product industry. One recent review of 69 studies found evidence that human-animal interactions could lift mood and reduce stress and anxiety, perhaps by activating the hormone oxytocin.
Though it’s not clear how strong or long-lasting the effects are, students who attend Paws for Stress events generally report at least a temporary drop in stress levels, says Sandra Barker, a researcher at the Center for Human-Animal Interaction at VCU’s medical school and an organizer of the event.
For instance, upon arriving at the December event, one student told Barker that she had a headache from the stress of studying. After five minutes petting and playing with one of the dogs, Barker says, the student looked up and told her, “My headache’s gone.”
Pets were once considered a leisure interest, one best kept at home. But there’s a growing recognition that in addition to companionship, animals may offer humans a tangible health boost. VCU is just one of many colleges making therapy dogs available to students to help them cope with the stresses of finals, Barker says.
Humans have a long history of keeping creature companions, and if you ask most animal lovers if their beloved pet makes their life better, they’ll say yes. But can a pet improve our health? That’s a question that researchers are beginning to investigate.
The field is still in its late infancy, says Barker, and the evidence remains mixed. At the moment, some of the best evidence for the benefits of pet interactions comes in the mental health arena, she says.
Numerous programs use service dogs to help veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder. Although having a canine companion around seems to raise a person’s mood, there’s not enough research yet to clarify to what extent such animal interactions might help ease PTSD symptoms, according to the National Center for PTSD, which is part of the Department of Veterans Affairs.
Depression is another common target for animal therapy. A small randomized, controlled trial with results published in 2005 found that therapy providing interaction with dolphins reduced symptoms of depression. Similarly, a 2007 meta-analysis published in Britain concluded that therapy animals can help ease depression, although it cautioned that more and better designed studies are needed to clarify the effects.
Indeed, not every study has found a benefit. A 2006 study found no significant decrease in depression among residents of another long-term-care facility who had weekly visits with a therapy dog.
Here’s where it really gets interesting, though. Newer studies are exploring whether the benefits of animal-human interactions may extend to physical health. In May of 2013, the American Heart Association released a statement concluding that pet ownership is “probably associated with decreased cardiovascular disease risk.”
“If you look at people with and without pets, those with pets tend to be healthier heart-wise,” says Glenn Levine, a cardiologist at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston who was on the committee that wrote the AHA statement. Studies that Levine’s group assessed included ones finding that pet owners have lower blood pressure, lower resting heart rates and less risk of hypertension than people without pets. What’s not clear, he says, is whether having a pet makes people healthier or if it’s just that healthier people are more likely to own a pet.
“The evidence that it’s a causal relationship is not as strong,” Levine says.
Studies do show that if you subject people to a stressful situation with a dog in the room, they have smaller increases in heart rate, blood pressure, adrenaline and other stress-related factors than if there is no pet present, Levine says. But the mechanisms for most of these associations remain unknown.
The most obvious way that a pet might help you become healthier is if it motivates you to get out and exercise. “The one mechanism that makes the most sense is if people adopt a dog and then walk it regularly and in doing so increase their own daily physical activity,” Levine says.
Not every dog owner becomes a vigilant dog walker, however, and when Rebecca Utz at the University of Utah examined the links between pet ownership and health measures among about 2,500 participants in the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, she found that people who kept cats or even fish as pets actually logged more physical activity than people with dogs.
“You can’t explain the effect of pet ownership on dog walking,” she says.
Still, she did find an association between pet ownership and health: Pet owners were less obese, had better self-reported health, less asthma and fewer cardiovascular problems than people without pets. But Utz says that her data also showed that people who had pets tended to be of higher socioeconomic status, which could also be a contributing factor for the association.
“What you shouldn’t do is go out and adopt an animal for the sole reason of wanting health benefits,” Levine says. “The primary reason to rescue an animal should be to give a pet a loving home.”
If your new pet gives your lifestyle a healthy boost, consider it a bonus.