STRESS stress facts

Animals, humans and stress relief

Fishes and stress

Watching fish found to ease human stress

Fish may be beneficial to your health. Not just eating them, but watching them.
Three University of Pennsylvania researchers report that quietly watching fish swimming in a home aquarium eases stress, and may offer a means of treating high blood pressure.

The fish are the key, the researchers say. People who watch fish tanks with bubbles, pebbles and plants - but no fish - don't benefit nearly as much.

"There is a sharp difference," says ecologist Alan Beck, director of the university's Center for the Interaction of Animals and Society. "Blood pressure drops with fishless fish tanks, but it doesn't drop as much and it creeps back up faster. With fish in the tanks, you truly get relaxation."

Lowered blood pressure is one way to measure reduced stress. A number of ailments have been associated with high stress in daily life, including heart attacks, sleep disorders and some ulcers.

Petting a dog or cat is a known stress-reducer. One study showed that survivors of heart attacks tended to live longer if they owned a dog.

Beck, psychiatrist Aaron H. Katcher and biologist Erika Friedmann decided to see if interaction with other animals produced similar results. They selected fish because they are such common pets. The Pet Information Bureau, sponsored by pet products companies, estimates that more than 10 million American homes have aquariums.

The researchers divided 100 paid volunteers into two groups. One at a time, they were put in a room and asked to read aloud - a proven way to induce stress - for one minute.

Then they were left alone with a fish tank for 20 minutes. Half the time there were fish in the aquarium; half the time there were none. A device automatically recorded the volunteers' blood pressure. Those who had fish to watch fared far better.

The random selection of volunteers resulted in the participation of some who suffered from high blood pressure. "For them, the fish were much better than for a normal person.

Pets and stress management.

"Pet therapy" is widely used in nursing homes, prisons, hospitals, and schools to reduce loneliness, anger, depression, and stress. A leader in the area of pet therapy research, found that cardiac patient survival rates were higher for those who owned pets, and that elderly people with pets made fewer visits to the doctor's office. Significant decreases in resting heart rate and blood pressure, as well as mood changes, have also been observed when research subjects played with their pets. Similar physiological changes were seen among the animals, too. Now ain't that great !

Science aside, pets - especially for dog-owning city dwellers - usually mean a brisk walk or two... or three... or four times a day, and that's always good for a little human stress management via fresh air and exercise. Socially, pets can be a great conversation-starter: "Oh, what a cute doggie... and not a bad master either." Of course, fish, turtles, birds, hamsters, ferrets, and other domesticated animals are capable of enhancing the relaxation response and relationship development just like their dog and cat cousins.

If you're contemplating pet ownership with the goal of stress reduction, make sure that owning and caring for Fido or Whiskers won't cause you more stress in the long-run. You might first ask yourself: are you allowed to have a pet where you live, will you or someone you trust be able to properly walk and feed your new best friend, are there children around who might be frightened (or vice-versa) by the presence of a four-legged furball and is your house or apartment big enough to meet both human and creature comfort criteria ? Also, if you live in a built up area, don't forget that you have to scoop up Fido's poop as well. Always put the pet's best interests against your reasons for wanting a companion.

Contact animal care organizations such as your local RSPCA if you are interested in pet adoption. These agencies help to control stray and unwanted animal population and find good homes for some of them. You could be doing a good favour to some deserving animal as well as yourself, some organizations may also provide important physical check-ups and vaccinations.

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