If you’re a pet lover, you know that spending time with a beloved cat, dog, rabbit or other pet can lift your mood, but science shows it has real physical and mental health benefits, too. Studies show that spending as little as five or 10 minutes with a pet can help lower stress and anxiety, relieve loneliness and reduce pain and depression. “It can be a very powerful interaction,” says Sandra Barker, PhD, psychiatry professor and director of the Center for Human-Animal Interaction at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, noting that pets also provide a form of social support.
In a small, pilot study at VCU, Barker found physiological evidence of the benefits: Lower blood pressure and heart rate, less cortisol (a stress hormone) measured in saliva and changes in brain waves reflecting greater relaxation.
Spending time with a pet may relieve pain, as well. Total joint replacement patients who spent 15 minutes with a therapy dog before physical therapy sessions reported lower pain levels in a 2014 study by Harvard University orthopedic surgeons. One-third of fibromyalgia patients who spent an average of 12 minutes with a therapy dog in the waiting room of a pain management clinic reported a clinically significant decrease in pain in a 2013 study published in the journal Pain Medicine.
Many studies have shown that pets have the effect of reducing stress and its symptoms, influencing the American Heart Association to issue a 2013 scientific statement: “Pet ownership, particularly dog ownership, may have some causal role in reducing cardiovascular disease risk.”
Other pets provide similar benefits. Tami Stackelhouse, a Seattle-based health coach who specializes in fibromyalgia (and has the disease herself), finds comfort in rubbing her cat. Pets also ease feelings of isolation among people coping with severe fatigue, she says.
Choose a pet that fits your lifestyle and capabilities, she advises. Walking a dog can be a great way to add activity to your day, but for a more sedate experience, you might prefer cuddling with a cat. “Being able to touch another living being does something good for your soul,” says Stackelhouse.
No pets allowed? If you’re not able to bring a pet into your home, you can get some of the same benefits by interacting with animals at a pet rescue. Rescue centers often welcome volunteers to walk dogs or socialize cats. And many cities have “cat cafes” – coffee houses with resident (often adoptable) cats ready to be stroked.
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