Study finds pet own­ers health­ier

The Tribune (NZ) - - YOUR BODY -

It’s com­mon sense to equate hav­ing a dog with better phys­i­cal fit­ness - they re­quire you to dili­gently walk them at least twice a day, af­ter all.

But hav­ing a pet at home can do more than just get you out of bed for a lit­tle ex­er­cise - it might im­prove both your phys­i­cal and men­tal health.

Let’s start with your heart. Ac­cord­ing to the US Na­tional Cen­tre for Health Re­search, blood pres­sure is re­duced dur­ing stress­ful times for people with pets, as op­posed to those with­out them. The cen­tre’s stud­ies have found cor­re­la­tions be­tween hav­ing a com­pan­ion an­i­mal with hav­ing re­duced anx­i­ety, which, in turn, amounts to a health­ier hearts owing to lower heart rates.

A large study of 11,000 Aus­tralian and Ger­man par­tic­i­pants found that pet own­ers are no­tably in better over­all phys­i­cal health than non-pet own­ers, and they make about 15 per cent fewer vis­its to the doc­tor each year. A sim­i­lar study of Chi­nese women found that when they own a com­pan­ion an­i­mal, they take fewer sick days at work each year (and also slept better).

In terms of gen­eral stress lev­els, stroking a dog or cat, watch­ing fish in a bowl, any even - quite se­ri­ously - touch­ing a pet snake have all been tested in re­search and found to be stress re­duc­ers.

A re­view of 69 stud­ies has also con­nected higher self-es­teem, mood el­e­va­tion, greater life sat­is­fac­tion and much lower in­stances of lone­li­ness from liv­ing with an­i­mals.

When put into a clin­i­cal sit­u­a­tion, the use of an­i­mals for health and well­be­ing pur­poses is called pet ther­apy. In many rest and re­cov­ery en­vi­ron­ments (in­clud­ing re­tire­ment homes and cen­tres for mil­i­tary veter­ans) an­i­mals are used to re­ha­bil­i­tate people faster in a con­va­les­cent set­ting. Pets pro­vide emo­tional sup­port and have been shown to aid in or speed up treat­ment for things like post­trau­matic stress dis­or­der (PTSD) and de­pres­sion.

How­ever, not all signs are pos­i­tive for health and an­i­mal own­er­ship. There are some stud­ies on an­i­mal and hu­man in­ter­ac­tion that have found no ben­e­fit to heart health and phys­i­cal fit­ness, and even some that sug­gest some an­i­mals could be bad news.

In 2015, for ex­am­ple, some re­search sug­gested higher risk of adult men­tal ill­nesses for chil­dren who grow up with cats. Pub­lished in

Med­i­cal News To­day, the study as­so­ci­ated cat own­er­ship with in­creased risk of schizophre­nia and bipo­lar dis­or­der later in life.

How­ever, this re­search was de­bunked by Cam­bridge Univer­sity in 2017. Re­search has found that cats don’t in­crease risk of men­tal ill­ness, in­stead, there’s a link be­tween it and Tox­o­plasma gondii (T. gondii), a par­a­site that cats shed in their fae­ces.

The par­a­site, if han­dled by a preg­nant woman (for ex­am­ple, pick­ing it up from a lit­ter tray), can cause in­fec­tion and raise the risk of men­tal health dis­or­ders later in their child’s life.

How­ever, Cam­bridge sci­en­tists con­cluded, "while preg­nant women should con­tinue to avoid han­dling soiled cat lit­ter, given pos­si­ble T. gondii ex­po­sure, our study strongly in­di­cates that cat own­er­ship in preg­nancy or early child­hood does not con­fer an in­creased risk of later ado­les­cent psy­chotic ex­pe­ri­ences".

More­over, the other stud­ies that sug­gest pet own­er­ship has no ef­fect on health (eg, one pub­lished in Epi­demi­ol­ogy jour­nal con­cern­ing blood pres­sure) have also been flawed: the pet own­ers of that study ex­er­cised less (and were more likely to be over­weight) than non-pet own­ers.

Also, hu­man-an­i­mal in­ter­ac­tion re­search is of­ten in­con­clu­sive be­cause it re­lies on self-re­port­ing (not ob­jec­tive re­port­ing) of emo­tional states pre- and pos­t­ex­po­sure to pets.

There’s also the ar­gu­ment that pet own­ers are gen­er­ally wealth­ier than non-pet own­ers, and thus those who have the en­ergy and fi­nan­cial re­sources to care for a pet also have the en­ergy and fi­nan­cial re­sources to care for them­selves.

The key is­sue here is that stud­ies nor­mally use ex­ist­ing pet own­ers. They don’t give people pets and then study them. This makes it un­clear whether hav­ing an an­i­mal makes you hap­pier and health­ier, or if hap­pier and health­ier people are sim­ply more likely to have pets.

The moral of this story is you shouldn’t get a pet for the sole ben­e­fit of good health. It is a plus if you see your body and mind im­prov­ing with pet own­er­ship, but better over­all health likely owes to other fac­tors as well.

Own­ing a pet­may­im­prove phys­i­cal and men­tal health.

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