Subjects: Behavioral health
Most people accept that pets can make the home a more inviting, relaxed place to be. Owners enjoy uncomplicated relationships with their pets, and unlike most humans, pets provide unconditional love and support. But can a pet actually improve your health?
A pioneering, 1980 study by Erika Friedmann, then of Brooklyn College, suggested this was indeed the case. Friedman and colleagues showed that people with “animal companions” had significantly improved one-year survival following discharge from a coronary care unit. Moreover, the survival benefit was not attributable to increased exercise associated with, say, walking a dog. Instead, it appeared to be driven by improved psychological functioning and reduced levels of stress.
Several recent studies support Friedmann’s observation. For example, a 2002 study by Karen Allen’s group at the University of Buffalo showed that pet owners had lower resting heart rates and blood pressure levels, and smaller rises from baseline levels when they were exposed to stress-producing situations. Furthermore, the stress-related rises in these parameters were blunted to the greatest extent when pets were present during the stressful situations.
Other studies have shown that pets seem to reduce annual visits to the doctor, and are associated with a lower incidence of obesity. In addition, preliminary studies suggest a link between pet ownership and higher circulating levels of oxytocin, a hormone that directly counteracts the effects of stress-related hormones. These findings, if validated, would help provide a physiological explanation for the proposed link.
However, many studies have reached the opposite conclusion. For example, Australian scientists recently reported that pet ownership, particularly cat ownership, was associated with increased cardiac morbidity and mortality in the year following hospital admission for acute coronary syndrome. Another study suggests that cat ownership significantly increases the risk for developing eczema in kids who are allergic to cats. Beyond this of course, is the obvious increase in the risk for sustaining animal bites, and the rare but real risk that the pet owners will contract diseases like toxoplasmosis and cat scratch fever from their pets.
There are many explanations for these confounding results. These include study design problems and the impossibility of running blinded studies, since subjects know they’re interacting with a pet. So ultimately, we may never completely understand the true impact of pets on health.
Keep in mind however, that the emotional benefits of pets are unmistakable and real…assuming that is, you actually like your pet!