Researcher: Pets Keep People Healthy

"The findings of this study show that pets can help lower responses to everyday stress, even among individuals who take medication for their high blood pressure," Allen says in a report on the experiment. "Although medication reduces resting blood pressure, it appears a beloved pet influences how we react to stressful people and situations that we cannot change."

Better Than a Best Friend?

Allen recently took her research to a new level with an experiment that revealed that spending a little time with the family pet may relieve stress better than talking with a best friend or spouse. She studied 240 married couples and found that those who owned pets fared better during stress tests if the pet was present than if the spouse or a friend was there. The researchers have speculated that maybe the participants knew their pets would be less judgmental than their spouses or friends when going through the stress tests.

Meanwhile, over at Texas A&M veterinarian Dr. Bonnie Beaver (great name for a vet) has compiled a long list of studies that purport to show that pets can be very good medicine indeed. Those studies indicate that 100 seniors on Medicare who own dogs made 21 percent fewer visits to a physician than those without dogs, and pet owners have lower cholesterol levels than non-owners, and pet owners are generally in better physical condition because they spend some time exercising the family mutt.

A lot of those stats are anecdotal, of course, but I know that last one is true because my border collie (Jeeves, the Wonder Dog) insists on a one hour walk every day.

Cats, Dogs and Cows

None of the research so far answers that most fundamental question of all: Which is better, a cat or a dog?

Michigan State's Kaiser resolves it this way:

"I think different animals do different things for different people. Very often if you take an animal to a nursing home, that animal will trigger a memory."

So someone raised on a farm might respond better to a pig than a cat, she says. But chances are the animal of choice will probably be a dog, because they are more easily trained than most pets, and thus tend to be more welcome in nursing homes.

A therapeutic flashback may be a significant part of why animals can help, but Kaiser admits she really doesn't know the complete answer. "Why," she says, is a very difficult question to answer. And the door is still open as to which pets are best.

As for Kaiser, she's taking no chances.

"I have three dogs, four cats and 18 cows," she says.

But no husband.

"I'd rather have a cow," she says.

Maybe it's possible to carry this a bit too far.

Lee Dye’s column appears weekly on A former science writer for the Los Angeles Times, he now lives in Juneau, Alaska.

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