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Who Needs Dr. Phil When You Have Dr. Fido?

Having pets can build confidence and reduce stress, according to a new study, but you need to love the ol' fleabag to benefit.
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For some of us, dogs and cats are more than just pets. They’re blood pressure meds with wet noses.

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A new study suggests having your pet nearby—or even thinking about him or her—can boost confidence and reduce stress, along with its physical symptoms.

But there’s a caveat: This dynamic only applies to owners who feel a loving connection to their feline or canine companion. If you think of Fluffy as a flea-infested nuisance, no benefits.

“Proximity to a pet can empower its owner,” writes a research team led by psychologist Sigal Zilcha-Mano of the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya, Israel. Specifically, the scholars argue, pets can help people relax and grow by serving “as a safe haven and secure base.”

The team’s findings, published in the Journal of Research in Personality, are the third in a series of papers examining pet ownership from the perspective of attachment theory.

According to this school of psychology, children and adolescents who have “attachment figures who are available and supportive in times of need”—say, good parents—develop a sense of internal security, giving them the confidence they need to explore the world.

Later in life, a supportive spouse or network of close friends can play a similar role. Zilcha-Mano and colleagues contend that pets can serve this same important function.

It’s an odd conjecture, on the surface; pets, in a sense, are the opposite of mentors or guardians, in that we are the caregivers and authority figures. But the researchers note that, quite often, a pet owner’s relationships with their dog or cat “is characterized by stability, tenderness, warmth, loyalty.” This feeling of unconditional acceptance, they write, “may predispose pet owners to approach a pet for comfort and reassurance in times of need.”

The positive impact of this relationship was demonstrated in two experiments. The first featured 165 Israeli dog or cat owners ranging in age from 18 to 68. They began by answering a “pet attachment questionnaire” that measured their emotional connection with the animal. They were then asked to list their personal goals for the future, and rate how likely they were to achieve each of them.

All the participants completed the experiments in their own homes, but they did so under one of three different conditions. One-third of them began by writing a brief description of his or her pet, and then completed the test while the dog or cat sat in the same room with them. Another third wrote such a description, but the pet stayed in another room of the house. The final third did not write about their pet, and did not have it in the room with them.

The researchers found those who had written about their pet generated more goals, and expressed more confidence they would achieve them, than those who had not. This effect was found whether or not the dog or cat was physically present in the room with them.

However, this dynamic was only present “among owners who were relatively securely attached to their pet.” The pet-related boost in confidence was missing for owners who fell into the “avoidant attachment” category, such as those who answered questions like “If necessary, I would be able to give away my pet without any difficulties” in the affirmative.

A second experiment featured 120 Israeli dog or cat owners split into the same three categories as those in the first experiment. Rather than listing goals, however, they performed a “distress-eliciting, extremely difficult” word test. To measure stress levels, their blood pressure was taken just before they began, and twice while they were taking the test.

The results: Those who had written about their pets had lower diastolic and systolic blood pressure during the stressful task than those who had not. The thought of their four-legged loved one helped keep them calm under pressure.

Again, this effect was found whether or not the dog or cat was in the room with them while the experiment was conducted. But it was negated for those who described their relationship with their pet as emotionally distant or conflicted.

So if you’re still sore at Spot for chewing that new pair of shoes, you might want to patch things up. It’s a cold, cruel world out there, but as this research confirms, it’s easier to face with a furry friend.