A few minutes alone with a pet cat or dog might do more to help people's stress than talking about their troubles with their best friend or spouse, according to a new study.

Researchers recently examined the effects of the presence of friends, spouses and pets on the level of stress associated with certain relatively unpleasant tasks. They found that compared with human support, the presence of pets was associated with lower perceived and actual responses to stress.

"While the idea of a pet as social support may appear to some as a peculiar notion, our participants' responses to stress, combined with their descriptions of the meaning of pets in their lives, suggest to us that social support can indeed cross species," says lead study author Karen Allen, Ph.D., of the State University of New York at Buffalo, writing in the September/October issue of the journal Psychosomatic Medicine.

Researchers evaluated participants' responses to two tasks known to induce stress: mental arithmetic problems and tasks requiring participants to submerge one hand in ice water for two minutes. An electronic monitor recorded participants' baseline heart rate and blood pressure, then measured them once each minute during the tasks. In addition, the number of errors during the math task was recorded. Before each task, the participants were asked to rate whether they saw the task as either "challenging" or "threatening."

The study involved 240 heterosexual married couples; half of the couples had a single pet, and the other half had not had a pet for at least five years. Each non-pet-owning participant identified a same-sex close friend to participate in the experiment, which took place in participants' homes, usually a family room or den.

The participants performed the stress tasks in one of four randomly assigned conditions: alone; in the presence of the pet or friend; in the presence of the spouse, and in the presence of the spouse and pet or friend. The researcher was present in all conditions but was positioned behind the participant, out of sight. Participants' friends and spouses were told that they could be "supportive" during the tasks in any way they chose.

Separate studies were performed for dog and cat owners, but because the researchers found no significant differences between the two types of pet owners, the data were analyzed together. Pet owners had significantly lower baseline heart rate and blood pressure than the participants who did not have pets; moreover, they had lower "reactivity" to the stress tests and returned to baseline levels more quickly. Pet owners also made significantly fewer errors during the mental arithmetic challenge; participants who performed the tasks with just their spouse present tended to make the most errors.

In addition, when asked to describe the tasks as either "challenging" or "threatening," pet owners with their pet present were more likely to describe the task as challenging than those who performed the tasks in the other conditions. Non-pet-owners, however, were more likely to see the tasks as challenging when alone than when they were in the presence of social supports. They also demonstrated less reaction to stress when alone than with friends or spouses.

According to Allen, "the findings demonstrate that pets can buffer reactivity to acute stress as well as diminish perceptions of stress."

The authors suggest that because participants demonstrated the lowest stress response when they were alone or when they were with their pets, participants' perceptions of whether their friend, spouse or pet was "evaluative" of their performance could have played a role.

"After the experiment," Allen says, "many participants commented that because they did not know the experimenter ... they felt less threatened by her presence than by that of their friends and spouses. For our participants, although spouses and friends may have meant well and tried to provide support, they were not perceived as non-evaluative."

The authors note that although their study found no major personality or demographic differences between pet owners and non-pet-owners, "we do not know if there is some other important overarching characteristic associated with pet ownership that we have not identified."

The research was supported in part by the Waltham Center for Pet Nutrition and by a grant from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

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Psychosomatic Medicine, Sep/Oct-2002 (Sep/Oct-2002)