8 Ways Your Pet Can Help Relieve Your Stress

Petting a Dog
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One study showed that pet owners had better self-esteem and tended to be less lonely and less fearful than people without pets.

Sometimes finding time to walk the dog or clean the litterbox seems like one more task to cram into your busy day. But it's worth it. Here’s why: There are many ways our pets actually help decrease the stress we feel in our daily lives.

To learn more about how and why animals help reduce stress, we talk with Dr. Alan M. Beck, director of the Center for the Human-Animal Bond at the Purdue University College of Veterinary Medicine.

1. Just being around an animal decreases your blood pressure, which is one physical measure of stress. Ever since work by Dr. Beck and colleagues first showed that petting a dog or cat lowers a person's blood pressure reading, this has been found to be true with other animals as well. In fact, you don't even need to touch them. Just looking is enough: Watching fish in an aquarium has the same effect.

2. Our pets decrease our reactions to stressful situations. One study showed that subjects asked to do a mental arithmetic task in front of their pets showed smaller increases in blood pressure and heart rate — in contrast to doing it in front of their spouse, which made it more stressful. So if your dentist has a fish tank in his waiting room, this effect may be exactly why; Dr. Beck's research showed that watching fish beforehand reduces the stress of undergoing dental procedures.

3. Pet owners on average get more exercise, especially dog owners. "People have been suggesting exercise as a way of dealing with stress and depression for a long time, and there's good data that dog owners walk more often and take longer walks," Dr. Beck says. While you might not make it to the gym, which benefits only yourself, your feeling of responsibility toward your dog is often more motivating. And he thinks cats can have some effect as well: "You're not running around the block, but at least you have to get up to get that toy from under that couch."

4. People with pets are less likely to say they feel loneliness, which is one common source of stress. This is both because animals provide companionship and because they encourage friendly interactions with other people. "Animals change your perception of people, and their perception of you," he says. "We perceive a person with an animal to be more approachable. If I saw you in the street, and I didn't know you, I wouldn't walk over to you. But if you were with your dog, I'd walk over and say, 'What a cute dog,'" he says.

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