There’s no shortage of good news about the effect of pets on
human health. Many articles present pet ownership as a key to
heart health, social support, and long life; and many people do
get a pet—or urge their aging parents to get one—for the health
benefits. In one study last year, researchers at the State
University of New York at Buffalo found that married couples who
owned pets had a lower heart rate and blood pressure—whether at
rest or when undergoing stressful tests—than those without pets.
Last May at a seminar in Portugal, the Federation of European
Companion Animal Veterinary Surgeons emphasized the many health
benefits of pet ownership. But they also alluded to some
negatives. We’ll take up both sides of the question here.
The health benefits of pet ownership are manifest for people who
like animals, and most of us do—at least friendly, clean,
non-threatening animals. Dogs and cats are generally more
affectionate and entertaining as pets than, say, fish or birds
or ferrets, though many delight in those animals, too. A dog is
generally the most responsive pet, and walking a dog provides
exercise benefits at both ends of the leash. (City people have
been known to walk their cats, but it’s not as good a workout.)
Dogs and cats promote human contact—you communicate with other
pet owners. Boy-meets-girl-via-dog is a film cliché.
Besides that, a pet gives you something to care for and thus
provides some structure for your life—you have to set out the
food, visit the vet, clean the cage, empty the litter, and so
on. A pet often takes center stage at family gatherings, easing
tensions and/or providing an immediate conversational outlet.
And, of course, dogs can be trained for useful work—aiding the
visually impaired, for example. Even the most pampered cat can
help rid your home of mice. Pets have a calming effect on most
people. Nursing homes now arrange for pets to visit residents,
and some facilities keep pets on the premises. Even the
government approves of pets—the National Institutes of Health
conducted a workshop almost 20 years ago on the health benefits
of pets and pet-facilitated therapy (PFT). Conclusion: these
benefits exist, particularly for the elderly.
Science and a dash of common sense
One of the pioneers of PFT was Erika Friedman, now head of the
Department of Health and Nutrition Sciences at Brooklyn College.
But pets are not medicine, and the scientific case for the
benefits of pet ownership is not watertight. In 1995 in a review
of research, Dr. Friedman said there’s no question that emotions
have an impact on health, and that pets may help promote
positive emotions. Still, it will always be difficult to study
this subject scientifically. If pet owners are healthier, it’s
always possible that they were healthier to begin with. Clinical
trials are impossible in areas like this—you can’t really hand
out pets and test their effects, as you might test the effects
of a drug.
Also, though it has been shown that the presence of a friendly
pet can have a positive effect on heart rate and blood pressure,
it’s not clear that a person actually has to own the animal to
get the effect. Still, Dr. Friedman concludes that since heart
disease and other stress-related diseases are so common in our
society, it can’t hurt to recommend pets for their calming
effect—at least for people who like animals and are willing and
able to undertake the responsibility of owning one.
People have interacted with companion animals since the
beginning of history, and that interaction may belong as much to
the realm of common sense as to science. If a pet adds joy to
your life and makes you feel better or more secure in your home,
or provides entertainment and structure, you hardly need
scientific proof of the benefits.
If you’re thinking of getting (or giving) a pet, remember the
downside. Dogs and cats can be expensive—and limiting. You have
to provide for their care when you’re away from home. They cause
wear and tear on your clothing and furnishings, shed hair, and
make messes you have to clean up. A barking dog may alienate
your neighbors. Some people are allergic to animal dander. A dog
must be socialized—that is, carefully trained in order to be a
good pet. If infants or small children are part of the
household, their relationship with a pet has to be supervised.
It’s never a one-way street. And pets are not a panacea—as Dr.
Friedman notes, they won’t cure cancer or heart disease. But for
many people, the right pet is a real plus, well worth any
trouble and expense.
UC Berkeley Wellness Letter, June 2004