Stressed Out? Get a Dog. Or Cat.

They're not just our best friends ... pets can reduce stress and our waistlines.

December 30, 2008, 5:16 PM

Dec. 31, 2008— -- 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.

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.

One research scientist at the State University of New York at Buffalo has been especially active in studying the contributions pets make to our lives. Karen Allen studied 48 stockbrokers, half of whom were assigned a dog or a cat, and half of whom didn't get a dog or a cat. All of them were being treated for hypertension, and all had lived alone for more than five years.

The pets had such a dramatic cardiovascular effect over a six-month period that many of the participants who weren't assigned pets went out and got one after the study was completed, Allen told the American Heart Association's 1999 convention.

Pets in the Bedroom?

In other research projects, Allen has found that couples with pets are closer and interact more than couples without pets. But she also found that in some cases, a pet may be more helpful at relieving stress than a spouse or close friend.

Of course, there's a downside to everything, and pets are no different. Your pet may snore more loudly than your spouse, for example, and that's not good for any relationship.

The Mayo Clinic Sleep Disorders Center in Rochester, Minn., studied 300 patients, half of whom had a dog or a cat, to see if the pets contributed to their sleeping problems.

The study found that 60 percent of the patients with pets allowed their pets to sleep in their bedrooms, and most of those slept in the beds alongside their owners. About 53 percent reported that their sleep was interrupted every night, but nearly always for less than 20 minutes.

Incidentally, 21 percent of the dogs snored, compared to only 7 percent of the cats.

One problem plaguing many pet owners was addressed last year by researchers at Ohio State University in Columbus: How do you get rid of fleas without poisoning the entire house?

The answer, according to Glen Needham, associate professor of entomology, is a vacuum cleaner. Upright, cannister, whatever. A good vacuum cleaner, he said, can wreak havoc on Ctenocephalides felis, the most common flea that nibbles on pets as well as their owners.

"No matter what vacuum a flea gets sucked into, it's probably a one-way trip," Needham said in releasing the study.

It's not clear yet what caused the fatalities. Were they beaten to death by the brushes? Did the blast of wind prove too much?

"We didn't do a post-mortem, so we don't know for sure," Needham said. "But it appears that the physical abuse they took caused them to perish."

Presumably, the vacuum should be used only on the floor and upholstery, not the pet.

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