Pawsitive Thinking

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