Study finds pet owners healthier
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.