8 Ways Pets Relieve Stress


If you own a dog or a cat, you probably don’t need scientific studies to tell you what you already know: your pet makes you feel better.  She gives you unconditional love, after all. She seems to know what you’re feeling, and mirrors those feelings back to you. She can make you laugh, and she can make you cry. All of those feelings—love, sharing, empathy, and more—pick you up when you’re feeling down and they make you feel less stressed.  That’s common wisdom and it makes common sense—but does science having anything to add on the subject?

Two Seminal Studies Show Pets Increase Confidence and Lower Stress

Two relevant 2012 studies, each published in the Journal of Research in Personality (and reported in Scientific American), examined the impact pets have on human emotions. In the first, participants were divided into three groups. One group had a pet close by, the second was asked to think about a pet, and for the third, pets weren’t involved at all. They were then told to list their goals and how confident they were in achieving them. The first two groups came up with a longer list of goals, and were significantly more confident they could achieve them.

In the second experiment, researchers divided participants into the same three groups, but this time asked them to perform a stressful task and monitored changes in their blood pressure. Those who had pets nearby or were thinking of pets had markedly lower blood pressure. The takeaway? Having pets close to you, or even just thinking about your pets, has the effect of lowering stress.

Are There Other Ways Pets Relieve Stress?

Dr. Alan M. Beck is the Director of the Center for the Human-Animal Bond at the Purdue University College of Veterinary Medicine. He has spent the lion’s share of his career studying the nuances of human-animal relationships, and he has a lot to say about the ways our pets relieve stress. According to Beck, pets relieve stress in 8 specific ways:

  1. They lower blood pressure: Dr. Beck’s research confirms the results of the two studies cited above. He has found that petting a dog or cat, or even simply being in their presence or looking at them, can be positively correlated with a drop in blood pressure. 
  2. They increase cardiovascular health: Dr. Beck points to a comprehensive review of scientific data on pets and cardiovascular response published in Current Directions in Psychological Science. Those several studies, viewed in the aggregate, indicated that pets have a positive impact on heart health.
  3. They inspire us to exercise more frequently: Studies have shown that pet owners, on average, get more exercise, and that helps reduce both stress and depression. This is more the case with dog owners, who walk their dogs and play with them outside, but cat owners also get additional exercise from daily play with their pets. 
  4. They make us feel less lonely: As humans are social beings, loneliness is a common source of stress. Our pets provide companionship, which not only decreases loneliness, but also—according to Beck—encourages friendlier interactions with other people, further reducing stress.
  5. They help us live in the moment: As Dr. Beck notes, "Stress really is bemoaning the past and worrying about the future."  

    Pets reduce the tendency to focus on past mistakes or worry about future problems. TWEET THIS

    According to Beck, something as simple as a game of fetch with your dog can keep you tethered to the present moment, reducing the stress associated with past and future.
  6. They fulfill our need for touch: Psychologists have long understood the importance of touch to psychological health. A recent article in Psychology Today, for example, notes that physical touch decreases violence, builds trust, boosts the immune system, and reduces stress. All pet owners reap the benefits of touch, but it’s especially important for the increasing number of those who live alone.
  7. They increase feelings of self-esteem: A recent study from researchers at Miami University and Saint Louis University found that pet owners had better self-esteem than non-pet owners. They also were less fearful and less preoccupied, all of which contributed to a decrease in overall stress levels.
  8. They make us laugh: According to the Mayo Clinic, laughter relieves our stress response and reduces tension. If you own a dog or a cat, chances are you spend a good deal of time laughing, and that’s good for your health.

Your pet, whether it’s a dog or a cat (or a bird, iguana or rabbit), gives you a lot every day. The health benefits, such as stress reduction, are reason enough for you to want the very best for them, including their own health, happiness, and well-being.

At South Boston Animal Hospital, we see the positive effects pets have on the lives of their owners every day. This is just one of the reasons we care as much about your pets as you do, and make it our mission to do everything possible to ensure that they stay healthy throughout their lives. To learn more about our veterinary services, or to schedule an appointment, contact us today.