Dogs and Cats, Do they help our Immune System?

Abstract

People and animals have a long history of living together and bonding. For centuries the relationship between human beings and animals had been a bond that had brought flickers of love, compassion, and loyalty in many a hearts.

dog and human
Courtesy of Pixabay

 

Whether it is our immediate pets or the diversity of animals that live in the midst of our environment, they have always played a positive role which is now being acknowledged scientifically on many grounds. Though the scientific study of the human-animal bond is still in its infancy there are increasing reports/findings being discovered related to the intriguing connections between human health and interactions with animals.

Among pets, Cats and Dogs are two of the most popular animals that have become an integral part of human interactions. This research paper focuses on whether Cats and Dogs do play a role in strengthening the human immune system and general well-being.

 

Introduction

In a rapidly changing society where we find ourselves more and more shunted between jobs, fast-paced life-style and less socializing, pets bring in much-needed creativity and play into lives which are great stress relievers. Primitive people found that human-animal relationships were important to their very survival, and pet keeping was common in hunter-gatherer societies.

In our own time, the great increase in pet ownership may reflect a largely urban population’s often unsatisfied need for intimacy, nurturance, and contact with nature. Some of the recent studies in the field of human-animal interactions suggest that pets do help improve the health quotients of their owners in many diverse ways.

One NIH funded study on a group of adults who had suffered heart-attacks concluded that pet owners were significantly more likely to be alive than were those who did not have any pets or any animal interactions regardless of the severity of the heart attack. Significantly pet owners were found to have lower heart rates and blood pressure than those without pets.

Quicker recovery from diverse health situations and increased metabolism among patients were discovered where pets were included in comparison to a human counterpart. It should be noted that the importance of pets is a global phenomenon. For example, Brazil has more than 30 million dogs and 12 million cats, China has more than 22 million dogs and 53 million cats, Japan has more than 9 million dogs and 7 million cats, and France has more than 8 million dogs and 9 million cats.

A new survey by the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) shows that close to 57 percent of U.S. households own one or more animals. But the question is whether having pets actually provide health benefits? Yes, say experts, as long as one is not allergic to animals or terrified of them. The AVMA survey found that nearly half of respondents considered their pets to be companions; only about 2 percent considered them to be property.

 

Pets as alternative Medical support systems

Most research that deals with pets discuss their usefulness in therapy. Pets are valuable tools when used in therapy because the mere presence of a pet can increase the therapist’s attractiveness thus making the patient feel more comfortable and allowing the patient to open up more to the therapist (Eddy, Hart, & Boltz, 2001). Hanselman (2001) suggests that pet therapy has been tailored specifically for every client, and it helps to put a person at ease. Therefore, just the presence of a pet can be beneficial to a person because it allows the person in therapy to feel more at ease and be more open with the therapist, thereby adding to the therapeutic process

The latest trend in medi-care has shifted towards pet therapy with the potential benefits of bringing specially trained animals into clinical settings. These animal-assisted therapies are increasingly offered in hospitals and nursing homes nationwide.

Although there is little solid scientific evidence confirming the value of this type of therapy, benefits are seen, including improved mood and reduced anxiety. The use of selected animals as agents in a wide variety of therapeutic approaches has become increasingly widespread in recent years.

Two examples were highlighted in this section of the workshop: companion dogs for handicapped people confined to wheelchairs and “hippotherapy,” horseback riding as part of a therapeutic program. In addition, a number of empirical studies have demonstrated that the presence of a companion dog serves to increase the quantity and quality of attention directed toward the handicapped persons by both familiar individuals and strangers.

This “magnet” effect of companion dogs can be of significant benefit to the handicapped individuals because research has clearly demonstrated that individuals with noticeable physical handicaps otherwise tend to be avoided or ignored by both familiar and unfamiliar individuals, relative to non-handicapped people.

According to few experimental studies, Allen and Blascovich (1996) found that people with severe ambulatory disabilities (e.g., spinal cord injuries, traumatic brain injury) who were given a service dog showed well-being improvements (e.g., self-esteem, locus of control)within 6 months relative to wait-listed control individuals.

Impact on Physical Health
According to Rice, et al. (1995) attachment is an enduring emotional bond that forms between individuals across a period of time. Attachment has been seen to happen between people, but it is also possible to occur between humans and their pets.

Attachment is an important part of understanding the relationship between humans and their pets (Staats, et al, 1996). This is because pets serve as therapeutic tools and as companions in minimizing loneliness to those who have inadequate support networks (Netting, Wilson, & New, 1987).

Companion animals may improve heart health by lowering blood pressure and regulating the heart rate during stressful situations. In a 2002 study, researchers measured changes in heart rate and blood pressure among people who had a dog or cat, compared to those who did not, when participants were under stress (performing a timed math task).

People with a dog or cat had lower resting heart rates and blood pressure measured at the beginning of the experiment than non-pet owners. People with a dog or cat were also less likely to have spikes in heart rates and blood pressure while performing the math task, and their heart rates and blood pressure returned to normal more quickly.

These findings suggest that social support a pet provides can make a person feel more relaxed and decrease stress. Social support from friends and family can have similar benefits, but interpersonal relationships often cause stress as well, whereas pets may be less likely to cause stress. The social support provided by a pet might also encourage more social interactions with people, reducing feelings of isolation or loneliness.

A large German study collected pet information (dog, cat, horse, fish, bird or other pet ownership) from over 9,000 people at two different times (1996 and 2001). The survey included a number of health-, economic-, and labor issues so that respondents would not realize the researchers’ interest in a link between pets and health.

Researchers found that people who said they had a pet in both 1996 and 2001 had the fewest doctor visits, followed by people who had acquired a pet by 2001; the group of people who did not have a pet at either time had the highest number of doctor visits.

The role of social support in cardiovascular health–a question not yet resolved despite considerable research–provides a rational framework for studying the possible benefits of pets beyond mere enjoyment and affection. Since psychological factors can elicit strong and immediate responses from the cardiovascular system, many studies are attempting to determine whether such influences ultimately affect the risk of developing cardiovascular diseases.

The description of a “coronary-prone behavior pattern,” or Type A behavior, and its link to the probability of developing overt disease provided hope that, with careful training, individuals could exercise additional control over somatic illness by altering their lifestyle.

Relaxation, meditation, and stress management have become recognized therapies for attempting to reduce blood pressure before pharmacological methods are prescribed. It, therefore, seems reasonable that pets, who provide faithful companionship to many people, also might promote greater psychosocial stability for their owners, and thus a measure of protection from heart disease.

Cats and Dogs – The Magic Touch
Man’s best friend may help you make more human friends, too. Several studies have shown that walking with a dog leads to more conversations and helps you stay socially connected. And studies have clearly shown that people who have more social relationships tend to live longer and are less likely to show mental and physical declines as they grow older.

In one study, elderly individuals that had a dog or cat were better able to perform certain physical activities deemed “activities of daily living,” such as the ability to climb stairs; bend, kneel, or stoop; take medication; prepare meals, and bathe and dress oneself.

There were not significant differences between dog and cat owners in their abilities to perform these activities. Neither the length of time of having a dog or cat nor the level of attachment to the animal influenced performance abilities.

A new study demolishes the stereotype of cats as cold, aloof animals that want only food from their owners. The study also reinforces the idea that a special bond exists between females and felines. What they saw was not just cold, food-seeking behavior on the part of the kitties, but real attachment to their owners.

The researchers observed a mutual social interaction in which both cats and humans signaled to each other when they wanted to pet or be petted. Like our human friends, cats keep track. They were more likely to respond to owners’ needs if their owners had previously responded to theirs.

Cats also seem to remember the kindness and return the favors later. If owners comply with their feline’s wishes to interact, then the cat will often comply with the owner’s wishes at other times. The cat may also “have an edge in this negotiation,” since owners are usually already motivated to establish social contact.

While men certainly got along with their cats, researchers saw more interactions between women and their animals, finding that cats were more likely to approach women than men and to do things like jump on their laps to initiate contact. Winkler, et al. (1989) suggest that socializing with pets encourages mental health of the elderly in many of the same ways that human interaction does, such as providing a sense of love, feelings of security, and a sense of purpose and responsibility.

There is empirical support that suggests that pets have the capability of promoting behavior that is beneficial to an owner’s health (Ory & Goldberg, 1983). Johnson and Rule (1991) support the notion that pets improve one’s health by proposing that pets provide owners with a longer lifespan, the ability to recover more quickly from illnesses, increased immunity to depression, and an overall higher level of life satisfaction.

One reason why people might benefit from owning pets is that their pets might represent an important source of social support. Indeed, numerous studies demonstrate that possessing greater social support improves psychological and physiological health (e.g., Harter, 2003; House, Landis, & Umberson, 1988; McConnell, Strain, Brown, & Rydell, 2009; Uchino, Cacioppo, & Kiecolt- Glaser, 1996). In a meta-analysis of 81 studies, Uchino et al. (1996) found that greater social support improves cardiovascular, endocrine, and immune functioning.

Moreover, House et al. (1988) found that poorer social support increases mortality rates even after biological and personality variables are statistically controlled.

The benefits of social support are not solely related to physiological outcomes. For instance, perceived social support from close others is strongly related to greater self-esteem (Harter, 2003).

While most pet owners are clear about the immediate joys that come with sharing their lives with companion animals, many remain unaware of the physical and mental health benefits that can also accompany the pleasure of playing with or snuggling up to a furry friend. It’s only recently that studies have begun to scientifically explore the benefits of the human-animal bond.

Studies have found that:

  • Pet owners are less likely to suffer from depression than those without pets thus strengthening the overall health and immune system
  • People with pets have lower blood pressure in stressful situations than those without pets.
  • Playing with a pet can elevate levels of serotonin and dopamine, which calm and relax.
  • Pet owners have lower triglyceride and cholesterol levels (indicators of heart disease) than those without pets.
  • Heart attack patients with pets survive longer than those without.
  • Pet owners over age 65 make 30 percent fewer visits to their doctors than those without pets.

One of the reasons for these therapeutic effects is that most pets fulfill the basic human need to touch. Even hardened criminals in prison have shown long-term changes in their behavior after interacting with pets, many of them experiencing mutual affection for the first time. Stroking, holding, cuddling, or otherwise touching a loving animal can rapidly calm and soothe us when we’re stressed.

The companionship of a pet can also ease loneliness, and some pets are a great stimulus for healthy exercise, which can substantially boost mood.

Large polls of more than 1,000 pet owners conducted by the Associated Press (2009, 2010) report that 50% view their pet “as much a part of the family as any other person in the household,” that 30% report their pet sleeps in their bed, that 35% have included their pet in a family portrait, and that 25% of pet owners who are married or cohabitating report that their pet is “a better listener than their spouse.”

Furthermore, it is clear that psychologically close others improve one’s happiness and well-being, whereas feeling socially excluded or disconnected from others has deleterious consequences (e.g., Aron, Aron, & Smollan, 1992; Chernyak & Zayas, 2010; Cohen & Hoberman, 1983; DeWall, Baumeister, & Vohs, 2008; Williams, 2007).

Adopting healthy lifestyle changes can play an important role in easing symptoms of depression, stress, bipolar disorder, PTSD, and anxiety, Caring for a pet can help with those healthy lifestyle changes by:

  • Increases exercise – Taking a dog for a walk, riding a horse, or simply chasing a kitten around helps increase the metabolism rate of individuals.
  • Provides companionship – Isolation and loneliness can make disorders such as depression even worse. Caring for a living animal makes one feel needed and wanted, and take the focus away from problems. Most pet owners talk to their pets, some even use them to work through their troubles.
  • Helps socialize and meet new people – Pets can be a great social lubricant for their owners. Dog owners frequently stop and talk to each other on walks or in a dog park. Pet owners also meet new people in pet stores, clubs, and training classes.
  • Reduces anxiety – The companionship of a dog can offer comfort, help ease anxiety, and build self-confidence for people anxious about going out into the world.
  • Adding structure and routine to each day – Many pets, especially dogs, require a regular feeding and exercise schedule. No matter your mood-depressed, anxious, or stressed-you’ll always have to get out of bed to feed, exercise, and care for your pet. Also choosing to exercise with your canine friend can be a more fun alternative than, for example, hitting the gym. In fact, it can even help you save money in the long run as you won’t have to go to the gym as often.
  • Providing sensory stress relief – Touch and movement are two healthy ways to quickly manage stress. This could involve petting a cat or taking a dog for a walk.
  • Helps find meaning and joy in life – As one ages, a person loses things that previously occupied their time and gave them life purpose. Caring for a pet can bring pleasure and help boost your morale and optimism. Taking care of an animal can also provide a sense of self-worth.
  • Boosts vitality – Pets encourage playfulness, laughter, and exercise, which can help boost your immune system and increase your energy.

Conclusion
In this research paper, it has been observed that pet owners are far better, both in terms of well-being outcomes and individual differences than non-owners on several dimensions. Specifically, pet owners had greater self-esteem, were more physically fit, tended to be less lonely, were more conscientious, were more extraverted, tended to be less fearful, and tended to be less preoccupied than nonowners.

The health benefits and the additional ways of keeping the body and mind alive and joyful do tend to keep the immune and the general well-being of humans hale and hearty.

In summary, the present work presents considerable evidence that pets benefit the lives of their owners, both psychologically and physically, by serving as an important source of social support. Given our increasing understanding of the consequences of loneliness and social connection (e.g., Twenge et al., 2007; Williams, 2007) and how social support plays a critical role in stress, illness, and even mortality (e.g., House et al., 1988; Uchino et al., 1996), identifying when and how pets serve owners’ social needs is important.

If research shows specific health benefits under specific circumstances, that information can be used to change policies in ways that benefit even more adults and children, by influencing rules and regulations for schools, health or assisted living facilities, residential treatment centers, and other places where people’s exposure to animals is sometimes discouraged but could potentially be encouraged.

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