CLEARWATER BEACH, Fla. -- Couples who own cats or dogs have closer relationships, are more satisfied in marriage and respond better to stress than couples who do not, a new University at Buffalo study has shown.
Measures of heart rate and blood pressure taken during a situation known to be a source of conflict between spouses showed that systolic blood-pressure readings of couples with pets were lower at baseline, rose less in response to stress and returned to baseline quicker than in couples without pets.
Pet-owning couples also had more frequent contacts with each other and with others, and those most attached to their pets had the most interactions with their spouses, according to the findings.
Results of the research were presented here today (Thursday, March 12) at the annual meeting of the American Psychosomatic Society.
"Many studies have shown that social support is protective of cardiovascular health," said Karen Allen, Ph.D., UB research scientist and author of the study. "We know that people who have many social interactions are healthier than people who don't. In this study, people who owned pets had significantly more interactions with other people than couples who didn't.
"We don't know specifically why this is so. Pet-owners may be the kind of people who inherently seek out more social contact. On the other hand, there may be something in the relationship between people and pets that enhances social interaction. It's also possible that for some people, contacts with a pet provide the same healthful psychological and physiological benefits as human contact."
Allen studied 100 couples, 50 who owned either cats or dogs, and 50 with no pets in the household.
Participants completed standard questionnaires that measured relationship closeness, marital adjustment, interpersonal support and pet attachment. They also kept a two-week diary recording the number and diversity of social contacts.
To evaluate responses to stress, Allen hooked up spouses to heart and blood- pressure monitors and introduced a topic identified through the questionnaires as a source of tension or disagreement. She then monitored heart rate and blood pressure during the ensuing discussion, to measure the couples' physiological responses to stress.
She found that among pet-owning couples, average systolic blood pressure at baseline was 115 mm/hg, rose to a maximum of 125 mm/hg during stress and returned to normal quickly when the experiment ended. Among non-pet-owners, systolic blood pressure averaged 135 mm/hg at baseline, rose to 160 and remained high for 5-10 minutes. Normal systolic blood pressure ranges from 110 - 130 mm/hg, depending on age.
"There was a significant difference in blood-pressure response to stress and recovery time among these two groups," Allen said. "In some couples without pets, blood pressure remained high 10 minutes after the conflict ended."
There were no significant differences in response between men and women, or dog- and cat-owners.
Allen's previous research has shown that the presence of a pet during a stressful situation has a beneficial effect on blood pressure, and that for women living alone who have little contact with the outside world, a pet provides the same beneficial effects on cardiovascular health as social interactions.
Allen's research is funded in part by the Waltham Research Center for Pet Nutrition located outside of London, England.