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Stressed? Talk to your pet

Wednesday, 25 September, 2002

Women may be less vulnerable to stress, say scientists

Dogs may indeed be man's best friend and cats could also lay claim to the title, according to scientists.

Researchers in the United States have found that spending time with pets is more effective at reducing stress than talking problems through with friends or partners.

The findings may be particularly good news for men.

A second study, by scientists in Finland, has found men may be more vulnerable to stress than women.

Researchers at the University of New York at Buffalo studied 240 heterosexual married couples, half of whom had a dog or cat.

Stressful tasks

They examined how all of the participants reacted to two tasks which are known to induce stress - mental arithmetic problems and putting one hand in ice water for two minutes.

The participants performed the tasks in four different conditions - alone; in the presence of a pet or friend; in the presence of their spouse and pet or friend. Those without pets used a friend.

An electronic monitor recorded their heart rate and blood pressure before, during and after each task.

The researchers found that people with pets had lower resting heart rates and blood pressure than those without a cat or dog.

They also found that pet owners reacted less to the stressful tasks and their heart rates and blood pressure returned to normal levels more quickly.

Pet owners also made few mistakes during the mental arithmetic task and were less likely to describe the tasks as "challenging" or "threatening".

Dr Karen Allen, who led the study, said the findings showed that cats and dogs can offer emotional support to their owners.

"While the idea of a pet as social support may appear to some as a peculiar notion, our participants' responses to stress, combined with their descriptions of the meaning of pets in their lives, suggest to us that social support can indeed cross species," she said.

Stressed men

Meanwhile, a Finnish study of 3,000 people has found that men are more vulnerable to stress than women.

Researchers at the University of Helsinki found men are much likely to take days off work sick, smoke and drink more and have other health problems after a major life event.

These events included being a victim of physical, psychological or sexual violence, divorce and severe financial difficulties after losing a job.

Women, by comparison, were inclined to smoke and drink more after such events but were not more likely to take days of work sick.

The researchers found that men had less social support through friends than women and suggested that this could explain why they are more vulnerable to stress.

Carole Spiers, chairman of the International Stress Management Association, backed the findings.

"The issue is often how a person copes or deals with stress rather than the situation or even itself.

"Men are not as inclined as women to ask for extra support and that is partly because of a macho culture," she told BBC News Online.

Ms Spiers added that while pets can help to reduce stress people should also seek to talk about their problems.

"Having a pet can be a stress reliever and takes your mind to other places but having the opportunity to talk through issues and have closure is more productive."

Both studies are published in the journal Psychosomatic Medicine.

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