Canine Corner

The human-animal bond

The Health and Psychological Benefits of Bonding with a Pet Dog

A pet dog can improve your mental and physical health.

     On January 29, 1908 an article appeared in The New York Times reporting the decision of a military tribunal concerning one Colonel Deems and his dog Riley. According to the article "The Retiring Board in solemn conclave has decided that the Colonel's fondness for the little fox terrier that had the run of Fort Howard, Baltimore, was not an evidence of mental derangement."

      The testimony against the officer was supposed to be quite damning, such as "it must not be forgotten that Riley jumped right up in the Colonel's ample lap and kissed him squarely in the mouth. Did it scores of times. Once he so far forgot himself as to carry off one of the Colonel's boots surreptitiously and the post commander had to hobble around his quarters for an hour with one foot bootless while his orderly searched for the No. 10." Furthermore the Colonel did nothing when his dog acted "in utter disregard of the seriousness of army life," by treating officers and enlisted men in exactly the same way. Nonetheless, the army officers and surgeons involved sent Col. Deems back to active duty concluding that "the dog was merely the target for the affection of a lonely army bachelor."

      Our view of the human-animal bond has clearly changed quite a bit since that hearing in the beginning of the twentieth century. No one can imagine someone's mental state being called into question in our modern world simply because they showed affection to a dog, or accepted affection from the dog in return. Today, in fact, our view of the human-animal bond has changed to such a degree that we are actually looking at dogs as a means of promoting both the mental and physical health of their owners.

kiss dog       The strength of the human animal bond has been known for a long time, but scientific evidence about how it works was first published only about 30 years ago when a psychologist, Alan Beck of Purdue University, and a psychiatrist, Aaron Katcher of the University of Pennsylvania, actually measured what happens physically when a person pets a friendly and familiar dog. They found that the person's blood pressure lowered, heart rate slowed, breathing became more regular and muscle tension relaxed-all of which are signs of reduced stress. Furthermore a study published recently in the Journal of Psychosomatic Medicine not only confirmed these effects, but showed changes in blood chemistry demonstrating reduced amounts of stress related hormones. It is interesting to note that these positive psychological effects work a lot faster than many drugs taken for stress, since all of these effects occurred after only 5 to 24 minutes of pleasantly interacting with the dog.

      There is now a large amount of data confirming that pets are good for your psychological health and may increase, not only the quality of your life, but also your longevity. The benefits are not just short term but last well beyond the time that the pet is in the room, and the positive effects build up over time. One important study of 5,741 people was conducted in Melbourne, Australia. Researchers found the pet owners had lower levels of blood pressure and cholesterol than non-pet-owners, even when both groups had the same poor life styles involving smoking and high-fat diets.

      A fascinating study, presented at the American Heart Association Scientific Conference, demonstrated how addition of a pet to your lifestyle can help. Researchers used a group of male and female stockbrokers, who were already beginning to show the effects of their stressful life style, and who were candidates for medication to lower their blood pressure. The researchers first evaluated the brokers' blood pressure under conditions of stress. They did this by producing a stressful situation that might produce the same kinds of stress that these stockbrokers typically face. They were next given speeded numerical tasks and asked to role-play a situation in which they had to talk their way out of an awkward position. In response to these stressful tasks, their average blood pressure shot up to 184/129 mm of mercury (any blood pressure of 140/90 mm of mercury is considered high).

      Each of the stockbrokers then was prescribed the same medication, however half of them also agreed to get a dog or a cat for a pet. Six months later the researchers called them back and gave them additional stress tests. Those stockbrokers who had now acquired a pet were allowed to keep the pet with them when they took their stress tests and the results were remarkable. The brokers who had the combined therapy (both a pet and medication) now showed a rise in stress related blood pressure that was only half as large as the brokers who were only treated with the medication.

      Pets can actually help even if you have started to show evidence of heart problems. In an intriguing study published in the American Journal of Cardiology, researchers followed more than 400 patients after they were released from the hospital after having a heart attack. One year later the pet owners had a significantly higher survival rate than non-pet owners. Their guess is that the affectionate bond and social support provided by their dogs was reducing their stress and stress is a major contributor to cardiovascular problems.

     Stress is not the only problem which our bond to our pets can help. Up to 25% of people who go to general practitioners do so for depressive and anxiety disorders. Depression is actually considered to be much more disabling, both socially and even terms of physical functioning, than many chronic physical illnesses such as diabetes, arthritis and back pain. Although depression can be caused by many factors, one of the most common is simply loneliness.

    People with inadequate human social support can really benefit from pet ownership and the emotional bonds that pets provide. With the weakening of extended family ties, older people are particularly at risk of becoming lonely, isolated and depressed. Research looked at 60 years of age and older, who were not living with human companions, but were living with a pet. The likelihood that the non-pet owners would end up being diagnosed as clinically depressed was four times higher that that found in the pet owning people of the same age. There was also evidence that the pet owners required fewer medical services and were much more satisfied with their lives.

     The easy and relaxed relationship that most people with have with pets also brings another benefit to people living alone. People report that when they are out walking with their dogs strangers are much more likely to stop and talk with them-mostly because there is a dog to say hello to, and people seem to want that moment of relaxed interaction with a pet. This can sometimes have important implications for the person's future lifestyle. Take case of Emma Cooper, age 71 who, had been living alone for nearly eight years since her husband died.

     "I was out walking Surrey, my cocker spaniel and this man stopped to give him a pat. He seemed like a nice man and told me that he used to have a blonde cocker spaniel just like Surrey. We started to talk about living with dogs and then stopped for a cup of coffee. Well one thing led to another and Bill and I are getting married next month--as soon as we can find a clergyman who is willing to let a dog stand in as the best man!"

Stanley Coren is the author of many books including: The Modern Dog, Why Do Dogs Have Wet Noses? The Pawprints of History, How Dogs Think, How To Speak Dog, Why We Love the Dogs We Do, What Do Dogs Know? The Intelligence of Dogs, Why Does My Dog Act That Way? Understanding Dogs for Dummies, Sleep Thieves, The Left-hander Syndrome.

Copyright SC Psychological Enterprises Ltd. May not be reprinted or reposted without permission.

Stanley Coren, Ph.D., F.R.S.C., is a professor of psychology at the University of British Columbia.

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