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How High Blood Pressure Reacts To The “Pet Affect”

Eli Ben-Yehuda

Written by Eli Ben-Yehuda

On August 6, 2017

I have had dogs in my life since I was about 6 years old. One day my dad showed up with a black Labrador retriever puppy called Smokey. We were the best of friends. We would chase each other in the woods out back. He would run after the ball when I kicked it. He also would go fishing with me down by the creek. He was my guardian, protector, and my best friends. He loved me all the way to the end.

Seems no matter how tired I have been, or grumpy, my current dog is always there for me. She is amazing. She jumps like a kangaroo in the tall grass, and listens to me, really listens when I need to talk. If you are a dog lover I know you understand what I am talking about. She also understand two languages, English and Hebrew. I would say she is pretty smart, and she is the only child we have.

So in my research this week I wanted to delve into the relationship of our pets and our health. Specifically high blood pressure and cardiac health. Do pets really, from a scientific perspective, impact our health?

It is estimated that Americans have about 75 million dogs and 80 million cats as companion animals. This does not include reptiles, birds, fish and the rest of Noah’s friends. In a survey performed in 2013 64% of American household have at least 1 pet while 45% have more than one. So how can having so many pets help us?

More than 2,150 Americans die from cardiovascular disease daily, an average of 1 death every 40 seconds. In any given year, approximately 620,000 Americans suffer their first heart attack, and 295,000 have a repeat attack. Even though rates of CVD declined between 2000 and 2010, its impact on healthcare costs and the lives of affected individuals, their families, and the community is substantial.

In an attempt to further reduce rates of CVD and improve heart attack survival rates, researchers extensively studied the effects of various medical and social variables on cardiovascular health, including human-animal contact. Human-animal interaction (HAI) can include temporary contact, regular contact, cohabitation, or ownership. Distinguishing between the different types of contact is crucial, as some studies involve interaction with a friendly but unfamiliar animal.

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In a ground-breaking study by Friedman, the study followed 92 people who had been treated for a heart attack or angina and discharged home. Survival after one year was 94% (50/53) for pet owners and 72% (28/39) for those with no pets. Pet ownership correlated with survival and reduced severity of disease. This finding was replicated in a later study of 424 survivors of MI (Friedmann & Thomas, 1995).

According to research published in the “Journal of Behavioral Medicine” human-dog interactions showed that talking to and petting a dog are accompanied by lower blood pressure (BP) in the person than human conversation. To clarify whether cognition, conditioning, or tactual contact exerted the major influence in this so-called “pet effect,” 60 male and female undergraduates with either positive or neutral attitudes toward dogs interacted with a dog tactile, verbally, and visually while BP and heart rate were recorded automatically.

Results revealed that a subjects’ BP levels were lowest during dog petting, higher while talking to the dog, and highest while talking to the experimenter and the subjects’ heart rates were lower while talking or touching the dog and higher while both touching and talking to the dog. Touch appeared to be major component of the pet effect, while cognitive factors contributed to a lesser degree.

It has been reported that people who have a pet, have healthier hearts, less often are homesick, and make fewer visits to the doctor. They get more exercise and are less depressed. Pets have been recently used in ‘Pet therapy ’, where the pets, especially cats and dogs, are commonly used not only to lessen stress and anxiety, but also to increase self-esteem and improve social skills . Perhaps most importantly, the dogs as pets are known to have the power of boosting mood and physical health.

The dogs as the best ‘companions’, give pleasure of playing and snuggling. Companionship can help prevent illness, and even add years to one’s life, thereby reducing the symptoms of isolation, loneliness and depression. Even hardened criminals in prison have shown long term changes in their behavior after interacting with dogs.

Stroking, hugging, or otherwise touching the dogs, can rapidly calm and soothe us when we are stressed, depressed or anxious. Touch and movement are considered as two healthy ways to quickly reduce stress. Stroking and patting a dog lowers blood pressure, thus making one feel calmer quickly and less stressed.

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