Pets can tame high blood pressure

November 06, 1999

ATLANTA, Nov. 7 -- Do you feel like you are living or working in a concrete jungle? Canine or feline companionship may have a role in taming your "stress response", according to a study reported today at the American Heart Association Scientific Sessions.

Researchers looked at 48 male and female stockbrokers who were using medication to control high blood pressure. They found that those with a pet nearby experienced half the increase in blood pressure under stress as those who did not own a pet, says the study's lead author Karen M. Allen, Ph.D., a research scientist in medicine at the State University of New York at Buffalo. "These results are dramatic and significant," says Allen. "For over a decade I've been studying the effects of pets on people's reactivity to stress -- measured by heart rate and blood pressure responses to mental and physical stress. We've shown over and over that it's beneficial to be with a pet when you're under stress," says Allen.

Her earlier work focused on healthy people. The current study is the first to look at people with a medical condition, in this case high blood pressure, and how a pet can help reduce stress reactivity, Allen says.

The stockbrokers made more than $200,000 per year and lived alone. "Their jobs are incredibly stressful. They are on the stock exchange floor, shouting, always on the phone. They're dealing with other people's money," she says.

A blood pressure reading of less than 140/90 millimeters of mercury (mm Hg) is considered normal. Without medication, the stockbrokers had an average blood pressure of 165/110 mm Hg at rest.

The researchers then tried to cause stress for the subjects. First, they asked the subjects to count backwards by 17 as rapidly as possible, a common psychological test that probably carried more stress than usual because the math-savvy stockbrokers felt extra pressure to excel, says Allen. They also told the subjects to give a 5-minute speech talking their way out of a shoplifting charge.

In response to the stress, their average blood pressure shot up to 182/126 mm Hg after the math test and 184/129 mm Hg after the speech.

Next, all the subjects were given an ACE inhibitor, a common drug known to reduce high blood pressure. The drug, however, does not have any effect on an individual's reaction to stress, says Allen. The medication helped to lower the stockbrokers' blood pressure to normal levels averaging 122/76 mm Hg. At the beginning of the experiment, prior to the stress tests, the researchers randomly selected half of the subjects to get a dog or a cat.

Six months later, the researchers again performed math and verbal stress reactivity tests. This time, the speech test involved trying to calm a furious brokerage client who had just lost $86,000 because of the stockbroker's bad advice. In those who took the medication but did not have a pet, blood pressure rose to 140/89 mm Hg for math stress and 141/94 mm Hg in response to the speech.

"That doesn't really sound bad, but the increase was the same number of points as before taking medication and it was still high enough to be diagnosed as high blood pressure if sustained over a period of time," Allen says. The medication-only group had double the stress response as those who had a pet in the room during the test, she says. Systolic blood pressure, the pressure when the heart beats, rose just 8 mm Hg in response to the math problem or the speech, remaining in the normal range at 130 mm Hg. Diastolic blood pressure, the pressure in between beats, rose 9 mm Hg.

It came as no surprise, Allen says, that over six months these people had developed a strong bond with their animals. She adds that many of the stockbrokers in the medication-only group acquired pets of their own after they heard about the study results.

Dr. Allen's co-authors are Joseph L. Izzo, Jr., M.D. and Barbara E. Shykoff, Ph.D.

American Heart Association

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