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Purrfect Match
By Nathan Welton
South Coast Beacon
Nathan Welton photos


Geriatric Kitty gazes endlessly out a hilltop window in Hope Ranch — but she probably has no idea what she’s looking at because she has cataracts. Her arthritic, gnarled joints cause her robotic gate, and she wobbles erratically, like someone with an inherited tremor. Kitty peers at her owners with an expression so offset that she stares at ears while trying to make eye contact, and since she gave up grooming herself she has acquired a curiously stale body odor.

But while she has 20 human years — or about 100 cat years — of wisdom under her collar, Kitty may not realize how she’s affected her human family: the feline has unwittingly helped her owners deal with anxiety and tension for two decades.

“For a lot of people, animals appear to provide a kind of social support that will help them to remain calm in a potentially stressful situation,” said UCSB psychology professor Jim Blascovich, whose recent study on pet owners in the journal “Psychosomatic Medicine” adds to a growing body of evidence that animals help people cope with stress.

“When my grandmother died, it was so comforting to have my cat,” said Andy Zeldis, who has owned the purring fossil since he was about 5 years old. “Kitty didn’t know all of what was going on, which in a way was sort of comforting because it makes you realize there’s a lot more to life.

“The cat’s not worrying about the war in Iraq, for example —all it cares about is that the litter box is clean and that there are things for her to bat around,” he added. “Pets give people perspective.”

To further understand relationships like those between Zeldis and Kitty, Blascovich and his colleagues measured the cardiovascular responses of volunteers who had to do mental arithmetic and had to submerge their hands in ice water. The researchers found that people had lower blood pressures and heart rates during – and recovered faster from – these stressful situations in the presence of their cats or dogs. And what’s more, pets seemed to calm people down even better than humans.

“Our pets aren’t there evaluating us like our friends or even our spouses sitting next to us,” explained Blascovich, noting that human companionship can result in a performance anxiety of sorts.

Dan Poynter, Santa Barbara resident and author of “The Older Cat: Recognizing Decline & Extending Life,” concurs. “People cope with pet loss a lot of different ways, and some feel a greater attachment to their cat than to members of their family,” he said. “One guy revealed that to me on a 50,000 watt radio station during a late night interview.”

According to the UCSB research, the heart rates of pet owners doing mental arithmetic in the presence of only their spouses rose about 35 beats per minute, while those who did the tasks by themselves had an average heart rate increase of about 23 beats per minute. But participants who did the mental arithmetic with only their animals present experienced a heart rate increase of just five beats per minute. The blood pressure results, as well as those for the ice bath submersion, were similar. Non-pet owners in the presence of friends (instead of pets) consistently performed worse in the tests.

“Pets provide a function that is more than just friendship,” explained Blascovich. “I have a dog and I’ve noticed this – and the more you’re attached to your animals, the more they serve this function.”

One potential problem with the UCSB research is that since pet owners exercise their animals, they might be in better cardiovascular shape to begin with – which would result in better performance on the tests.

“That could be possible, but given that people don’t walk cats, I’d say that’s not the reason,” said Blascovich, who noted that both cats and dogs equally mitigated the stress levels of their owners.

Blascovich’s findings aren’t surprising, as other studies have shown similar results, but they further reinforce the belief that pets help people cope.

“There has been research that shows that pets are great stress relievers, and I guess that’s because people have a chance to care for something that provides unconditional love,” said Poynter. “You may not be the best looking person or have good hygiene, but your animal doesn’t care.”