Stressed Out? Get a Dog. Or Cat.

Some people are very organized when it comes to messing up their lives, an old friend told me years ago. The first thing they do is make a list of the 10 best ways to ruin everything. At the top of every list, he added, is this:

Get a dog.

He was wrong, of course. If he had taken the time to peruse the scientific literature he would have found all sorts of studies showing that a dog, and maybe even a cat, really can be man's (and woman's) best friend. Studies show that pets can lower our blood pressure, reduce our waistlines, help us deal with stress and maybe even improve our relationships with our significant others.

One study in 1999 came up with a finding that is particularly comforting today. A faithful pet is better than medication at keeping blood pressure under control among stockbrokers.

So, if there's one thing President-elect Barack Obama needs in the years ahead, it's a really good dog.

Sending the Pets Off to College

In the past, most research was aimed at the elderly or the infirm. A pet can make life more pleasurable for someone who is too old, or too weak, to hit the dance floor. But new research out of Ohio State University reveals that a pet, be it a cat or a dog, can be a great help to college students who are dealing with the stress of transitioning from home to dorm.

Sara Staats, professor emeritus of psychology at Ohio State's Newark campus, surveyed nearly 350 college students and found that almost a fifth of the students turned to a pet for comfort and stress relief . Nearly a quarter of the students said their pets helped keep them active, although dogs were a little better at that than cats.

The study, published recently in the journal Society and Animals, showed that "avoiding loneliness" was the top reason given by the students for owning a pet.

"The pets are not a substitute for human social interaction and support, but they do provide important interaction for these kids who might otherwise feel isolated from their current environment," Staats said in releasing the study.

Dieting With the Dogs

In a different study, researchers at Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Chicago conducted a 12-month study to see whether pets can help curb the obesity epidemic. Fat people with fat dogs (dogs also suffer from overweight problems these days) were compared to fat people without dogs to see if working out together gives pet owners an edge.

During the study, the dogs were fed low-fat dog food supplied by a pet food manufacturer that sponsored the research. Pet owners were given a "suggested" exercise plan and a regular weigh-in schedule. They were also helped in planning their meals, which presumably were different than their dogs' diets.

Over the 12-month period, the humans lost an average of 11 pounds and the dogs lost an average of 12 pounds. And there were some super-achievers. One person lost 51 pounds, and one dog lost 35 pounds. Those who participated in the study without pets did not do nearly as well, according to the researchers, who said the research shows that working out together is good for the beauty as well as the beast.

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