Part 2: The Evidence
In Part 1 of this article series, we looked at how pet-people relationships can provide us with the qualities of human attachment needs. Now, let’s take a closer look at the evidence for the benefits of pets.
Getting to the heart of the matter – can pets help keep our hearts healthy?
Most of us admit to feeling love for our pets and would describe them as being family members. Interestingly, having a pet can mean better protection for us against heart disease and also an increased chance of survival after a heart attack.
Stroking our pets can help lower blood pressure – just one of a number of benefits of pets to health
Studies have shown that stroking a familiar cat or dog can actually lower both human and pet blood pressure, reduce serum triglycerides and lower cholesterol levels, all of which are good news for our heart health. Interestingly, one study showed the presence of a pet after a heart attack was more effective than the presence of a spouse or friend in alleviating cardiovascular effects of stress! This may be because of the nature of our relationships with pets, which are fundamentally non-critical and grounded in sustained positive regard and unconditional acceptance.
A recent landmark study following patients post heart attack showed that people with cats and dogs had a significantly increased rate of survival in the first year compared to those who did not have pets. In fact, the patients with dogs were 8.6 times more likely to be alive in the first year after a heart attack than those without pets! A number of factors contributed to this increased chance of survival post heart-attack linked with dog ownership, including increased structured opportunities for exercise and increased sociability (going out for walks) and companionship. However, we also know from neuro-scientific studies that when we stroke a familiar cat or dog neurochemicals (e.g. oxytocin) are released in our brain that are associated with relaxation and bonding; our cortisol levels (stress hormone) are also reduced. These neuro-psychological responses can also help strengthen our immune systems and protect us from stress.
Pets can help us cope with long-term conditions
There are also psychological benefits of pet ownership for people with chronic health conditions such as heart disease, cancer and dementia. Clearly the welfare and care of the pet is always paramount and not everyone who is unwell or learning to cope with a chronic health condition will have the resources or energy to look after a pet. However, there may be other ways for people unable to have their own pets to come into positive contact with dogs and cats through schemes such as ‘Pets as Therapy’ or by being involved with pets owned and looked after by other family members.
Supporting someone who becomes unwell with a long term condition who already has a pet to be able to keep them and retain their relationship, can be a pivotal factor in improving quality of life, increasing hope and motivation and reducing the likelihood of depression. In fact, the presence of a dog or cat has been linked with alleviating low mood and reducing anxiety in people with serious illness and in end-of-life, illustrating a strong evidence base for the importance of older people being enabled and supported to take their pets with them when they go into sheltered housing or a nursing home.
Forced relinquishing of a loved pet can be emotionally devastating for someone who is elderly, has a chronic condition or is facing end-of-life. In the UK, the charity SCAS (Society for Companion Animal Studies) has been leading the way in advising and supporting sheltered housing providers to become ‘pet friendly’. It is essential we try to help people with long term conditions retain their relationships with their pets and also enable opportunities for positive contact with animals for those people who would like this; evidence shows that even watching fish in an aquarium tank in a nursing home was beneficial for older people with Alzheimer’s disease, helping raise mood and increase appetite.
Pets can help our mental well-being
As we have already learned, psychologists investigating how people form attachments with pets recognise similar qualities and relational patterns in pet-people relationships as human attachments, e.g. pets being perceived as a secure base (in providing a source of consistent unconditional positive regard and affection). Pets can help reduce isolation and loneliness – two big factors important to our psychological health and wellbeing. Most of us talk to our pets and in doing so we are able to externalise (put our thoughts and feelings into words) some of our worries and more difficult emotions with the confidence we will not be judged or rejected. In this respect, pets provide us with a form of social support and this in turn can bolster our self-esteem and improve our self-concept.
Pets can help reduce isolation and loneliness and alleviate low mood
In having a pet dependent on us for their care and welfare, we also have an outward focus; when we become depressed our focus becomes very much inward (e.g. ruminating on negative thoughts and beliefs), but pets can provide a source of positive distraction and an opportunity for us to feel valued, competent and worthwhile. For people living alone or who are housebound, caring for a pet can also provide a sense of purpose and motivation, which can be very important in alleviating and preventing low mood.
Studies also show that people with pets tend to be more physically healthy and have fewer visits to their GPs; if we have a dog it gets us outside. Being outside can elevate our mood, and offer opportunities for meeting people we might otherwise never come into contact with. Our pets also provide a neutral topic for conversation; we are actually more likely to interpret someone as approachable and ‘safe’ if they have a pet. As adults it is also sadly too easy for us to lose our ability for fun and chance to play! Our pets make us laugh and provide safe opportunities for us to be spontaneous and connect with our inner-child.
People with pets tend to be more physically healthy and have fewer visits to their GPs
Dispelling a few myths
There are some pervading myths about people who are highly attached to their pets. Whilst research shows that some people who have experienced extreme trauma (e.g. childhood sexual abuse) and who tend to experience detachment from immediate surroundings and reality as a form of psychological defence, may form very strong attachments with pets, there is actually no evidence whatsoever to support that close attachments with pets are substitutes for human relationships. In fact the opposite has been shown; that those of us with strong attachments to pets also have strong human attachments.
We most often describe our companion animals as family members, typically relating to them as siblings or sometimes child-like beings (because of their dependency on us for their care and welfare). We do however need to keep in mind that all of us have our own unique personalities and attachment styles which in many respects influences how we will relate to our pets and ultimately determines our decision about whether we want to share our lives with other animals or not.
But, what is clear from the evidence to date is that responsible pet ownership can confer some very real human health benefits.