By Nathan Welton
South Coast Beacon
Nathan Welton photos
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
“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.”