The companionship of pets 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 the elderly 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. Elderly women living alone score more favorably on measures of mental health; even college-aged women report less loneliness if living with companion animals rather than alone.
Similar comforting effects of animal companions, whether cats or dogs, in warding off depression were reported for patients with Alzheimer's disease who had a companion animal and were cared for at home and for men with AIDS whose social lives were shrinking. Elderly 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 the effects of adverse events on the person. The interactive caregiving exchanged with the animal allows the person to nurture and feel needed, while also feeling nurtured. The animal's constancy bolsters courage during setbacks, as 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 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 has someone who offers a greeting or recognition when the person comes 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 would be less involved and engaged in living or even depressed. Walking the dog and being outdoors where other social contact arises are two healthful effects of living with a canine companion.
The daily comfort, socialization, and 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 patients with elevated blood pressure were given medication, and random assignment of pets was made to some patients, those with pets performed better on stressful tasks but did not differ in blood pressure scores, indicating a lower response to stress among pet owners. 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 following heart attack was found to be more likely among people with companion dogs and human social support.
Last full review/revision March 2012 by Lynette A. Hart, PhD