Iolanda Celikkol knows the power of a good pet. The Toronto-based 45-year-old suffers from osteoporosis and osteoarthritis, and says were it not for her dog Rayne, a two-year-old Labrador retriever/Great Pyrenees mix, she likely wouldn't get out of her home during the day.
"Without my four legged friend I wouldn't do anything," she says. "She makes me more social and she makes me more active."
A new study is finding many tangible physiological benefits to pet ownership. Conducted by Erika Friedmann, a professor and human-animal interaction expert at the University of Maryland, the study followed cat and dog owners over 50 years of age in the Baltimore area suffering from mild hypertension to determine the effect pets have on blood pressure levels.
Throughout Friedmann's study, pet owners were tracked every 20 minutes of their waking hours on three different days over a three-month period using ambulatory blood pressure monitoring. The participants also recorded how often their pets were with them.
After analyzing her preliminary data, Friedmann says her findings are showing that pet owners had lower blood pressure when their pets were present in a variety of situations.
In the wake of a recent report by the Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada revealing that high blood pressure and obesity have risen dramatically, especially among younger people, more Canadians might benefit from a four-legged friend.
Friedmann has also conducted studies that found people of all ages experience reduced stress responses in mildly stressful situations when in the presence of a pet. For instance, her subjects felt more comfortable engaging in small talk when a friendly animal was present.
"The presence of a pet can moderate these responses and if repeated over time that has the potential to slow the development and the progression of hypertension (high blood pressure)," Friedmann says.
Alan Beck, director of the Center for the Human-Animal Bond at Purdue University in Indiana, calls pets a positive distraction. He says they are stimulating enough to hold our attention without being stressful.
"We're in the present (with a pet) and we can't worry about the past or the future - so much of anxiety is the mind worrying about the past or the future," Beck says.
Friedmann agrees, explaining that a pet forces people to focus on something outside of themselves and their problems, even if only for short-term intervals.
Having a furry companion around can also motivate people to exercise and increase fitness levels.
Rebecca Johnson, director of the Research Center for Human Animal Interaction at the University of Missouri, has been studying community residents of all ages who walk shelter dogs once a week for the past four years. Johnson found that by participating in weekly walks volunteers increased their physical activity outside of the dog walking program and felt motivated to think more about their personal fitness.
In a separate study, Johnson looked at residents from retirement facilities who walked shelter dogs five days a week for 12 weeks and compared them with other retirees who walked with human companions.
The study found the dog walking group gradually increased their speed by 28 per cent, whereas the human walking group only increased their speed by four per cent.
In addition, while the dog walking group grew more enthusiastic and motivated, requesting an earlier start so they could beat the heat and provide their dogs with longer walks, the human group often discouraged each other from walking and complained about such factors as the heat.
"It's the motivation that's important," Johnson says. "There are physical benefits if you make a commitment to your dog. You just have to realize animals need to be walked and reinforcement from the animals and exercise feels good."
Celikkol, whose physical limitations prevent her from working, is able to walk her dog and enjoy social interaction with Rayne at her local dog park.
She says owning a dog helps her relax, gives her a sense of security and makes her happier overall.
"She (Rayne) picks up my spirits," Celikkol says. "You know how you can depend on a family?" In the same way, she says, "you can depend on a dog."
Want the benefits of being around animals without the responsibility of owning one?
Volunteer at a local animal shelter where there are many opportunities to walk a dog, cuddle a cat or pet a rabbit.
What are the benefits?
If you take part in a dog-walking program at a shelter, you'll help increase a dog's chance of adoptability, according to Shawna Randolph, spokesperson for the Edmonton Humane Society. Not only do dogs need exercise but they need human contact and to get out and be socialized, she says. And you might shed a few pounds while you're at it.
If you're not a dog lover, but would still like to interact with animals, there are other ways to get involved.
"Cats and rabbits, rodents, guinea pigs, all need regular socialization and cuddling from humans," Randolph says.
Studies have shown people can lower their blood pressure simply by stroking an animal.
How do you get involved?
Contact your local humane society or Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. You'll be required to go through an application process and attend an orientation session.