While petting an animal can make us feel more relaxed, signs now point to the health benefits of pet ownership. One recent study by researchers at the State University of New York, Buffalo, looked at the effects of pet ownership on 48 stockbrokers who were already taking medication for hypertension. It found that the 24 stockbrokers who were given a pet had significantly more of a reduction in high blood pressure accompanying stress than did those without pets.
"Most studies show a direct benefit from stroking a pet, for example, but this one goes a step further in that the act of owning a pet lowered blood pressure," says Alan Entin, Ph.D., past president of the division of family psychology of the American Psychological Association.
Pets can be, as Entin put it, emotional lifesavers as well, because they help people adapt, adjust and deal with many changes and losses in life. Pets' unconditional love gives their owners a sense of worth and responsibility when caring for them; pets can help people learn about the continuity of life — birth, death, loss and grief — and offer a sense of intimacy. They are even a way to help couples prepare to have children, he adds.
Dog Walkers Have More Fun
Dogs especially can encourage good-risk behaviors. Research shows that when walking a dog, people tend to make more eye contact and have more people interact with them. People with dogs also tend to walk more on average.
"A lot of people usually hate to walk because it's lonely, but if they have a dog, they find it's something they look forward to doing," Sinatra says. "And it's the best form of exercise for people and dogs."
One recent study by British researchers from Warwick University found that 40 percent of dog owners say they make friends more easily as a result of having a dog. This study also monitored the outdoor routines of pairs of people — one walking alone and the other accompanied by a dog — and found that people routinely initiated social contact with the dog owners.
Whether our pets are furry, feathery or leathery, they are more important to us than ever, moving beyond the ranks of domesticated animals to the more appropriate title of "companion animals."
That very companionship between humans and their pets is not just comforting, it is part of human survival, according to Beck. "I'm not sure we could have gone much past the village stage [of evolution] without our companionship with animals."