Animal companionship both relaxes and entertains people. Pets can provide both social support and status. In coming to know their clients, veterinarians can assess the importance of the pet to a family and the extent to which the family members benefit from the potential psychosocial effects of living with an animal. The pet’s contribution may be magnified for vulnerable people, such as older adults who are facing increasing disabilities and losses of close companions and family. During stressful periods in people’s lives, many studies have reported that pets offer meaningful comfort that is protective against depression and loneliness. Older women score more favorably on measures of mental health, and college-aged women report less loneliness if living with a companion animal rather than alone.
Similar comforting effects of animal companions, whether cats or dogs, in warding off depression were reported for patients with Alzheimer disease. The same is true for men with AIDS who had a companion animal and were cared for at home and whose social lives were shrinking. Older people experiencing typical life stresses are less affected (as measured by number of medical visits) when they have a companion dog, suggesting that a dog can be a stress buffer that softens effects of adverse events on the person. Of course, pets require caregiving, and the reciprocal caregiving exchanged with the animal can also allow the person to nurture and feel needed, while also feeling nurtured. The animal’s constancy bolsters courage during setbacks, because the animal’s affection is unaffected by factors such as the person’s physical capabilities or mood.
Companion animals facilitate social interactions with other people and an overall positive social involvement. The socializing effects of dogs have been documented in public settings and also among people with a variety of disabilities. A companion animal provides a person who has few friends with an ally in making new human acquaintances, while also creating a richer family environment with enhanced companionship. Even one person with an animal lives in a family unit and is greeted or recognized on arrival home.
The motivating role of animals is a further antidote to depression. Many people are inspired to walk their dogs, volunteer to take animals into nursing homes for visits, or just actively nurture an animal, whereas without the animal they may be less involved and engaged in living or even depressed. Walking a dog and being outdoors where other social contact arises are two healthful effects of living with a canine companion. Research projects and community programs in many parts of the USA and elsewhere are seeking to raise the popularity of dog walking as an approach toward improving human health and lessening human disease, including diabetes and cardiovascular problems.
The daily comfort, socialization, and relaxing motivation offered by an animal also are associated with cardiovascular benefits. Blood pressure decreases transiently when a person relaxes with, talks to, or just watches an animal. When human patients with increased blood pressure were given medication and randomly assigned pets, those patients with pets performed better on stressful tasks, indicating a lower response to stress in this group; however, blood pressure scores did not differ in those with pets and those without. Several studies show longterm health correlates with animal companionship, although the animals were not randomly assigned to the people but rather were chosen by them or their families. Cardiovascular measures were better among pet owners than nonowners in a large Australian study. Two studies reported that pet ownership was related to decreased mortality. Survival for 1 yr after heart attack was found to be more likely among people with companion dogs, along the lines of human social support.