Need To Relax A Little? Try Getting A Pet

Pet friendly

By Karen Weintraub

When Dorsey Arnold brings her dog to visit a group of children, she knows what to expect. The kids will smile and giggle, shyly reach out their hands and boldly offer hugs.

“The unconditional love that a dog brings into any room it enters is observable, palpable, and poignant,” said Arnold, executive director of Caring Canines Visiting Therapy Dogs Inc., which brings dogs to schools, nursing homes, and hospitals throughout the Boston area. It “pulls them into a place where the stress they’re feeling is forgotten — for a little while anyway.”

A growing body of research backs up Arnold’s observations. When people interact with pets — either their own or strangers’ — they seem to relax and enjoy themselves more.

Even fish can have that effect on people, which is why so many doctors’ offices have fish tanks, said Marguerite E. O’Haire, an assistant professor of human-animal interaction at Purdue University’s College of Veterinary Medicine.

Although scientists don’t know the exact mechanism, watching animals seems to lower heart rate and blood pressure, O’Haire said.

In one study, published in April in Science magazine, researchers found that dog owners’ brains received a squirt of the “love hormone” oxytocin when they stared into their pet’s eyes. This response may be part of what makes being around animals feel so good, O’Haire said.

Another contributing factor may be that animals, unlike people, don’t judge us.

All of which makes it unsurprising that two-thirds of American households have pets; in fact, children are more likely to grow up in a home with a pet than with a father.

O’Haire’s 9-month-old dog, Milo, comes to work with her every day, and she said her personal experience reflects what research has shown: that people who bring their pets to work are more relaxed, willing to work longer hours, more motivated, and more positive about their job. Milo also helps the stress levels of her co-workers, O’Haire said. “For better and for worse, I’m much more popular than I was before,” she said.

Researchers haven’t yet compared the stress-reduction benefits of a pet versus, say, a meditation class. But O’Haire said her own studies suggest there’s a significant pet effect. In one study, children with autism showed a 43 percent reduction in anxiety when they had a pet guinea pig in their classroom.

Animals may not be equally beneficial for everyone. Those who are allergic or afraid are obvious exceptions, said O’Haire.

But for the rest of us, a pet — be it a dog or a cat, a horse or a gerbil — may be just what the doctor ordered.

Source: Bostonglobe

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