An estimated 60 percent of American households have at least one pet, with dogs and cats (165 million, combined) numbering more than half the human population. Not only can pets improve the quality of their owners' lives, they may also help them live longer. The latest evidence that pets are good for health comes from the American Heart Association, in a Scientific Statement published earlier this year in the journal Circulation.
It reported on research that has found associations between pet ownership and lower blood pressure, heart rate and blood cholesterol. It confirmed that dog owners get more physical activity (at least in part because they have to walk their dogs) and are less likely to be overweight or to smoke, all of which contributes to cardiovascular health. And among people who have cardiovascular disease, those who own a pet, especially a dog, have lower mortality rates than those who don’t. Most studies have involved dogs and cats, but benefits have been associated even with fish, chimps, goats and snakes, too.
Fetching more pet benefits
- Pets enhance emotional and psychological well-being, some research suggests. For example, a 2011 paper published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found that pets didn’t replace relationships with humans, but rather complemented them, and that pet owners had higher self-esteem and were less likely to be lonely. Pets were found to be especially helpful for people who didn’t have a traditional support network. Some of the heart benefits seen in pet owners may be due, in part, to the social support the animals provide.
- Pets may also help relieve stress. Among several studies showing this, a 2012 study in the International Journal of Workplace Health Management found that office workers who brought their dogs to work had lower levels of perceived stress, compared to dog-less employees and those who left their dogs at home. Having a dog in the office—even one that is not yours— also increased morale and worker cooperation, the employees reported.
- Because you have to care for them, pets can add structure to your life: You have to feed them, walk them, take them to the vet, clean their cages or bedding, wash and groom them, empty the litter and so on.
- Pets can be good for children. Besides the companionship they offer, caring for pets teaches children about responsibility for another creature. And children exposed to animals early in life may have stronger immune systems: Research has shown that those raised with pets (especially dogs) and on farms are less likely to develop respiratory and ear infections, allergies and asthma.
- Some animals, notably dogs, can be trained to assist people with disabilities, including visual or hearing impairments, limited mobility, seizures and mental illness.
- You may not have to own the animal to get a pet effect, at least in the short term. Many nursing homes and some hospitals arrange for pets to visit, because of the calming effect they have. Several studies have shown that people with dementia, in particular, show less agitation and aggression when they interact with a dog.
- It may not even have to be a real pet. At least one study found cardiovascular benefits from “virtual” pets seen on videos.
- The National Institutes of Health conducted a workshop almost 30 years ago on the health benefits of pets and pet-facilitated therapy and concluded that these benefits exist, particularly for the elderly.
Vetting the pet research
Not all studies have linked pets to health benefits, however. In addition, the positive associations that have been observed may not be causal—it’s possible that sick people tend not to get pets, for example. Clinical trials to prove cause and effect are hard to do, since you can’t easily hand out pets and test their long-term effects. Rather, studies typically compare people who choose to have pets to those who do not. Some research has even found that pet owners are less healthy and less happy (though, of course, there may not be a causal relationship there, either).
As one paper put it, “the pet effect remains an uncorroborated hypothesis rather than an established fact.” The benefits may also depend on factors such as the personality of both the owner and the pet and how attached they are to each other.
If you are thinking about getting (or giving) a pet, keep in mind the downsides. Pets are expensive. They can be messy and destructive; barking dogs can alienate neighbors; dogs must be housebroken and socialized; cats sometimes spray or stop using the litter box. If you have infants or young children in the house, you must supervise their relationship with a pet. And you have to provide for the pet’s care when you are away.
Dogs, cats and other animals can also cause serious bites, and more than 85,000 Americans go to the emergency room every year because they have tripped over a pet. Some people, of course, are allergic to animals. And though it’s not too common, pets can pass some infections to humans— and vice versa.
Bottom line: Besides being good companions and adding joy to many people’s lives, pets may provide some health benefits. But they are not medicine and, as the American Heart Association warns, you should not get (or give) a pet solely for heart health. If you don’t have the desire or resources to have your own pet, you could consider volunteering at an animal shelter or with a facility that trains therapy animals. A good resource is the Humane Society.
Published November 29, 2013