Like deities and tax law, your beloved pet works in mysterious ways. Science can't explain the power of the pooch or the Karma of the kitty, but numerous studies have shown that furry companions--just by their presence--can help lower blood pressure and cholesterol levels, raise chances of survival after a heart attack, reduce loneliness and depression and spread all-round good cheer.
Any owner will tell you how much joy a pet brings. For some, a critter provides more comfort than a spouse. A 2002 study by Karen Allen of the State University of New York at Buffalo measured stress levels and blood pressure in people--half of them pet owners--while they contended with performing 5 min. of mental math or holding a hand in ice water. Subjects completed the tasks alone, with a spouse, a close friend or with a pet. People with pets fared best. Those tested with their animal pals had smaller spikes in blood pressure and returned most quickly to baseline heart rates. With pets in the room, people also made fewer math errors than when figuring in front of spouses or friends. In another study, Allen put a group of hypertensive stockbrokers on blood-pressure-lowering drugs and told half of them to adopt a pet. Six months later, the new pet owners showed less than half the blood-pressure surge of their peers while performing stressful tasks--and, again, made fewer math errors. It seems people feel less nervous around pets, says Allen, who thinks it may be because pets don't judge.
In part, it's that capacity for unconditional support that makes pets such good company. A study reported last fall suggests that having a pet dog not only buoys your spirits but may also help you trim your gut. Researchers at Northwestern Memorial Hospital spent a year studying 36 portly people and their equally pudgy dogs on joint diet-and-exercise programs; a separate control group of 56 people without pets was put on a solo program. On average, people lost about 11 lbs., or 5% of their body weight. Their canine sidekicks did even better, losing an average of 12 lbs., more than 15% of their body weight. Pup owners didn't lose any more weight than the pup-less but, say researchers, got more exercise overall--mostly with their dogs--and found it rewarding instead of a chore.
No scientific study has deconstructed exactly why pets boost our well-being, but for most pet lovers that probably doesn't matter. It's enough to know that like many of the other basic joys in life, a pet's affection is simple, easy and mercifully unconditional. --By Sora Song