After a stressful day, sometimes all I want to do is go home and zone out with my cat Ivy sitting on my lap for a while,” said Michele Vaughn, a middle school teacher in Tyler, Texas, who, along with her husband, Jim, rescued the white female with tabby spots nearly seven years ago.
“Ivy has a really loud purr and is not shy about using it,” Vaughn said. “You can almost feel your blood pressure lowering.”
According to the American Veterinary Medical Association’s most recent U.S. Pet Ownership and Demographics Sourcebook, 56 percent of American households include pets. And the majority of these pet owners, 63.2 percent, consider their companion animals to be family members.
Like Vaughn, many also believe that their pets are not only “tuned in” to their physical and mental health, but can also actually help improve them. Is this possible?
In some cases, yes, according to researchers like Philip Tedeschi, M.S.S.W., L.C.S.W., executive director of the Institute for Human-Animal Connection and clinical professor at the University of Denver Graduate School of Social Work.
The amount of research in the area of human-animal interaction is increasing every day, and it is confirming what many people with companion animals have already recognized instinctively. “Animals are a very critical part of people’s lives — part of their support systems and some of the most reliable and relevant and valued relationships that people have,” Tedeschi said. Experts agree these relationships can, in turn, often have a positive impact on physical and mental health.
Patients are usually aware of the possible physical downsides of living with pets, said Dr. Lee Blecher, who practices family medicine with a concentration in women’s health in Fairfax, Va. They know that pregnant women shouldn’t handle cat litter, for example, because of the risk of birth defects from toxoplasmosis, and they know that animal bites and scratches should be treated immediately to prevent infection. They also know that sniffling, sneezing and other allergic responses to pets can create misery for sensitive household members.
The benefits of sharing a home with a companion animal, however, are often overlooked, or in many cases are just now coming to light. For example, while some pets may act as allergens, investigators are learning that pediatric exposure to animals might actually prevent allergies later in life.
“Kids exposed to pets early on in life have fewer allergies and pulmonary disorders like asthma. It ends up being a beneficial thing,” said Blecher, who is also an associate clinical professor of family medicine with the Virginia Commonwealth University School of Medicine.
“It primes the immune system. It’s similar to the concept of immunotherapy, or allergy shots,” he said, citing two recently published Swedish studies.
A heart-healthy match
The primary cause of death in the U.S. is cardiovascular disease (CVD), so studies indicating that pet ownership can improve CVD symptoms and indicators like lipid (fat) profiles, stress response, and, yes, even blood pressure, have been greeted with interest by the health care community. After critically reviewing the literature, the American Heart Association (AHA) published a Scientific Statement on Pet Ownership and Cardiovascular Risk in 2013 that concluded that pet ownership, particularly dog ownership, is probably associated with decreased CVD risk and may even have a causal role in reducing it.
One possible cause of this positive impact is the increased physical activity usually seen on the part of dog owners. “We all have patients whose only exercise is that they have to get up to walk the dog three times a day,” Blecher said.
The same AHA statement cautioned, however, that, while getting a pet might be a “reasonable” recommendation in some cases, “pet adoption, rescue or purchase should not be done for the primary purpose of reducing CVD risk.” That’s in part because not all situations are the same.
“Individual variation in people, animals and different contexts likely all matter,” said Meagan Mueller, Ph.D., a research assistant professor at Tufts University Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine and associate director of the Tufts Institute for Human-Animal Interaction.
“And so far, it seems as though the quality of the relationship matters … A positive, mutually beneficial relationship with a pet is probably going to be associated with more positive outcomes,” she said.
Another area researchers are exploring is the concept of bioaffiliation, or the recognition that we learn about our own well-being by “tuning in” to living things around us.
“If you were standing next to a bunch of people, and all of a sudden they all startled and ran away, you would probably think about doing the same thing, right?” Tedeschi said.
Contact with other healthy, living systems can also help us assess our situations and relax, and allow our physiology to respond in kind.
“For example, we can put a resting therapy dog right alongside the body of a traumatized child, and have that child use that animal’s heart rate and respiration to match their own,” said Tedeschi, adding that this process allows the child to recalibrate his or her own physiology and slow down acute stress reactions.
This is particularly significant since the longer the brain of a trauma patient feels unsafe, the less positive their outcome may be. “So the quicker we can be in moving somebody to a sense of feeling safe, and a sense of well-being, the fewer symptoms we have over the long term,” Tedeschi said.
Leading the way in terms of research about bioaffiliation and other human-animal connection questions is work with the therapeutic use of animals for patients with conditions like autism and posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Patients with autism spectrum disorders can sometimes have trouble functioning in traditional settings, said Tedeschi, who has collaborated with celebrated autism and animal behavior expert Temple Grandin.
Animals communicate using everything except spoken or written words, he points out, and in some cases individuals on the autism spectrum are able to use these nonverbal forms of communication to have really successful connections with animals. “Animals provide fantastic opportunities for working with these individuals,” Tedeschi said.
Another example of where pet-based interventions are becoming useful is with the military veteran population returning home from extensive deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan. It is estimated that there are now about a half million U.S. service members who potentially are experiencing PTSD and similar traumatic brain injuries.
One of the outcomes of PTSD is that many individuals retreat and avoid social connections. “So when somebody doesn’t trust a human being, in many cases animals are an alternative safe and supportive relationship,” Tedeschi said. “This allows them to begin to utilize their brain in a capacity consistent with healthy relationships, and to begin to recover, to retrain the traumatized brain to be able to function in everyday life.”
One clinical intervention for PTSD, for example, is to teach people experiencing hypervigilance to observe their own animals. Cats are fantastic for this, Tedeschi said, because cats are very sensitive to their environments. This allows somebody to form a second opinion about whether there’s an actual risk or not and begin to regain control of their own startle reflexes.
The truth about cats
It’s something of a myth that cats are less trainable than dogs, said Tedeschi. They can be trained through positive reinforcement, “often in the very same ways that dogs can be trained — but we have different expectations for them.”
Cats can, in fact, learn to participate in our lives much like other companion animals can be trained to do — if you are committed to it, he advised. “You have to be consistent. And most cat owners aren’t,” Tedeschi said. “Most cat owners have a funny, almost roommate-like relationship with their cats, where they love each other, but they have habits that drive each other crazy.”
There are programs incorporating cats that teach them to walk on leashes, play games, do obstacle courses, fetch things, and interact with and respond to people in helpful ways, Tedeschi said. Cats also offer tremendous opportunities for people with minimal space, or minimal access to the outdoors — for example, someone who is housebound or unable to leave home frequently.
A dangerous situation
“Social isolation is one of the most dangerous conditions that we treat,” Tedeschi said, emphasizing it can even have the same overall impact on health as smoking a pack of cigarettes a day. “It shortens people’s lives on multiple, different levels, creating these psychological or emotional circumstances where somebody begins to have other kinds of problems,” he said.
A number of specific populations are particularly prone towards becoming isolated — for example, older adults who are losing their friends and spouses. In many cases, pets can become very effective social support systems.
When Vaughn and her husband moved her retired mother into assisted living recently, one of the top priorities was whether or not they would accept her two cats, Dempsey, a large male longhair red curl, and Abbie, a petite female calico.
“Even though she is in a wheelchair, Mom is still able to look after them with my help, and they really add so much to her life,” said Vaughn.
“Abbie’s favorite place is the windowsill, and since Mom’s apartment is near the entrance of the facility, Abbie has become the unofficial greeter,” Vaughn added. “She makes a lot of people happy.”
The right fit
For the many millions of adults who are lonely and lacking social connections, as well as for the millions of homeless animals that are euthanized each year, this may seem like a win-win. But experts emphasize that there also has to be a good fit, both between human and animal and within the larger (and often changing) situational context.
Blecher has seen the positive side of living with pets for many of his patients, noting that they can provide emotional comfort when the patient is ill and companionship when someone loses a family member. But he also observed the downside of a bad match or a changing situation, particularly for those who do not have family members like Vaughn to provide backup support.
“Patients develop emotional concerns when they get ill and can’t take care of their pets,” said Blecher. “And sometimes, economically, they can’t afford the veterinary expenses.”
It is important for pet owners to have a plan in place for the care of their pets, Blecher said, adding that he has one savvy patient who has even written animal care plans into a will.
Connecting with the moment
Understanding the different types of people and pets that could help each other most is an area where we need more research in human-animal interaction, said Mueller of Tufts Institute for Human-Animal Interaction. “One of the major unanswered questions is determining under what circumstances pet ownership is beneficial.”
In the meantime, however, “there is something very heartwarming about having someone love you so unconditionally,” said Vaughn.
Ultimately, said Tedeschi, whether or not having a pet improves your health is about relationships.
“The same kinds of important qualities that exist in our human relationships that allow us to feel connected, to have the ability to interact, the ability to participate in enjoyable activities — those are right at the heart of many people’s relationships with their companion animals,” he said.
A.D. Lively is an Arkansas-based writer specializing in health and wellness.