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Cardiovascular reactivity and the presence of pets, friends, and spouses:

The truth about cats and dogs

Karen Allen, Jim Blascovich, and Wendy B. Mendes
State University of New York at Buffalo

Published in 'Psychosomatic Medicine', 64, 727-739, 2002

This study investigated how the presence of friends, spouses, and pets affect cardiovascular reactivity to psychological and physical stress.  The researchers used a community population sample and participants consisted of 120 married couples with an average age of 42 years.  All participants were healthy and did not require any cardiovascular medication.  Half of the couples had a single pet and the other half did not have a pet at any time within the previous 5 years.  The experiments took place within each participant's home and they were required to complete several questionnaires followed by two cardiovascular reactivity tasks, which were a mental arithmetic task and the immersion of one hand in ice water for 2 minutes.  Before starting the experiment, heart rate and blood pressure levels were monitored during a 10-minute resting period.  Each participant then completed the tasks in one of four randomly assigned conditions: alone, with a pet (pet owners) or a friend (non-pet owners), with their spouse, or with their spouse and their pet/friend.

The results indicated that pet owners had lower heart rates and blood pressure at baseline during the resting period compared with non-pet owners.  Furthermore, they also demonstrated much smaller increases in heart rate and blood pressure during the experiment and returned to baseline levels much faster, suggesting more rapid cardiovascular recovery.

Pet owners exhibited the lowest cardiovascular reactivity during the mental arithmetic task, when their pets were present in the room, whereas non-pet owners had the lowest reactivity when they were alone.  Reactivity levels for this task were highest for both pet owners and non-pet owners in the presence of their spouses however this effect appeared to be diminished with the addition of their pet.  Moreover, pet owners appeared to be faster at the mental arithmetic task compared with non-pet owners and they also made fewer errors when their pet was present.  During the immersion in ice water task, which tests passive coping skills, pet support was also associated with the lowest cardiovascular reactivity.  However, the presence of a spouse or friend did not appear to have detrimental effects to the same extent as in the mental arithmetic task.  

Pet owners were also more likely to perceive the mental arithmetic task as challenging, rather than threatening, compared with those who did not own a pet.  Moreover, they were significantly more likely to consider it as challenging in the presence of their pet whereas non-pet owners were more likely to consider the task as challenging when they were alone than when they were in the presence of others, suggesting that the presence of other people may influence how we perceive stressful situations.

The authors concluded that people perceive their pets to be an important source of social support in their lives and the results of these experiments highlight significant cardiovascular and behavioural benefits that are associated with those perceptions.

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