“Life begins when the kids leave home and the dog dies.” I don’t know who uttered that cynical phrase, but it certainly seems to fly in the face of positive aspects of owning a dog (I won’t venture into the aspects of managing teenagers!). When a dog is young and rambunctious, every morning when you leave for the day, you might have to lock it in a crate that the CIA would consider an excellent torture chamber. Eight hours later you return and there is your loyal companion, lunging at the bars separating the two of you, anxious for you to unlock the door so it can leap into your arms, loving and forgiving and in no way blaming you for the imprisonment agony you have inflicted. Talk about unconditional love!

You may have read anecdotal stories about the wonderful effect dogs can have on owners. In fact, you may even be familiar with programs that send a pooch to a local nursing home on a regular basis because its presence, even if only for a couple of hours, seems to have such a positive effect on the mood of the residents. Many of these anecdotal reports have been verified in correlational research on owning pets in general, not just dogs. Elderly folks who have pets, for instance, appear to make fewer physician visits; pet owners show better survival rates following heart attacks; and the presence of pets lowers blood pressure and other measures of cardiac stress. Many hospitals have “comfort dogs” on duty, and patients are often eager to schedule time with and enjoy the beneficial effects of the dog while recovering.

These findings are interesting and seem to establish a link between pet contact and good health. A link, however, does not establish causation. With this limitation in mind, Karen Allen and her colleagues at the State University of New York at Buffalo conducted a study that helps establish that having pets causes health benefits, and not simply that healthier people are more likely to take on the responsibility of pet ownership.

Allen and her colleagues chose as subjects stockbrokers with high blood pressure (at least 160/100 as measured by their physicians) who were willing to adopt a pet. From this group, they randomly selected half of them to adopt a dog or cat for the duration of the study. The other half did not do the adoption. The results showed that for those who adopted, there was a clear positive effect when the brokers reported they were under considerable stress: their blood pressure increase was less than half that of the brokers who had no pet. Notice that pressure increased under stress for all the subjects, but the increase was significantly smaller for the pet owners.

Pets can be great but how do they stack up against friends? You can’t call the pet on the phone when you need someone to talk to; the pet can’t offer you advice on which course of action to take; pets can’t encourage you to keep going when the odds seem against you. Indeed, those needs are usually fulfilled by friends.

For this experiment, Allen chose women as subjects. During the actual procedure, Allen measured the women’s blood pressure while they performed difficult mental calculations. Each woman was randomly assigned to one of three conditions: alone; in the presence of a female friend; or in the presence of their dog. Compared to blood pressure in the alone condition, when friends were present the women had higher blood pressure when doing the task; when the dog was present, however, there was no such increase.

In a follow-up study, Allen used the same procedure, but this time they pitted the dog against a spouse-present condition. In the study, when men and women worked on math problems in the presence of their spouse, blood pressure went from 120/80 to 155/100. However, when they worked in the presence of their pet, the math task took blood pressure to an average of only 125/83.

The math studies are interesting and lend themselves to a variety of interpretations. One simple explanation is that the subjects felt a lot of pressure when doing the math problems, and maybe they didn’t want a friend or their spouse to get the impression that they were struggling, unable to do some of the problems, and thinking, “Wow, [he’s/she’s] really pretty bad at this task.” The dog? He’s licking their leg saying, “You’re wondering whether to give me the chicken or beef dinner tonight, right?” The situation is probably like trying to make a basketball shot in the presence of your friend, spouse, or your dog. Miss the shot and those humans will know you’re lousy (even though they’ll give you the old “good try” comment). The dog? He’ll run after the ball yelling “Throw it to me again! This is fun!”

Are we saying that the key to good physical and psychological health is to run out and get a dog or cat? Absolutely not. Remember, when it comes to effective coping, one size rarely fits all. But if having a pet fits your lifestyle, and if you’re willing to invest your time and effort toward its welfare, the benefits may well be worth your time. Only you can decide.


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