Here’s a summary of research showing the effects of pet ownership on your health. If you thought owning a pet makes you healthier, you’re right!
I’m working on my Master’s of Social Work (MSW) at the University of British Columbia (UBC) in Vancouver, and have to take a year-long class in Qualitative Research. The topic I’m researching is how pet ownership affects your health…and before I can start my own research study, I have to summarize the past research on pet ownership and health.
Instead of keeping my findings to myself, I decided to share what I’m learning here. I know my readers are interested in pet ownership, because Putting a Dog to Sleep – A Veterinarian’s Guidelines is one of my most popular articles.
How Pet Ownership Affects Your Health
Many research studies have analyzed the effects of pet ownership on the owner’s physical and emotional health and well-being. Further, several literature reviews have summarized the findings of both qualitative and quantitative research studies on pet ownership and physical health.
Pet owners have lower blood pressure. Cutt et al. (2007) summarized a large body of research that indicates pet owners appear to have lower systolic blood pressure and blood cholesterol levels (Anderson et al., 1992), better survival rates after a heart attack (Friedmann et al., 1980), lower levels of mental stress (DeMello, 1999; Allen et al., 2001), lower feelings of loneliness and depression (as cited in Zasloff & Kidd, 1994) and higher self-esteem (Bulcroft & Allen, 1988).
Pet owners also exercised more, which may be related to better cardiovascular health for pet owners (Anderson et al., 1992; Allen et al., 2002). Further research by Allen, Blascovich, and Mendes (2002) argues that owning a pet can be more effective than the presence of a friend or spouse in reducing the effects of stress.
If you own a dog, you might want to read What Your Favorite Dog Breed Says About You.
The negative effects of pet ownership and health. While the findings on pet ownership and physical health are mostly positive, some research exists that shows that pet ownership can actually be harmful to the owner’s health. For instance, Parslow and Jorm (2003) studied the health of pet owners, pet carers, and non-owners. They differentiated between pet owners and pet carers, stating that pet carers have a stronger attachment to pets than pet owners. They attempted to control for this. They found no differences in the mental and physical health profiles or use of health practitioner services of pet owners, pet carers, and non-owners. They also found that pet owners and pet carers used pain relief medications more frequently than non-owners (which could potentially be a harmful effect of pet ownership). However, their research findings were inconsistent with other studies on the use of pain medications by pet owners versus non-owners (as cited in Anderson et al., 1992; McHarg et al., 1995; Bauman et al., 2001; Pachana et al., 2005).
This contradiction on pet ownership and health highlights the problems faced by many research studies – not just Parslow and Jorm’s (2003) results on pets, owners, and medications. Each study on pet ownership and health needs to be analyzed in terms of its specific research question, methodology, data collection, data analysis, researchers, who paid for the study, etc.. In this paper, I discuss some aspects of each research study, but space does not permit me to do a full analysis of each study.
But, connection does not indicate causation. Cutt et al (2007) believe there is another, more specific, research problem with studies on pet ownership and health. This is the fact that we cannot infer causality. There is a definite connection between pet ownership and health, but does pet ownership actually cause improvements in health? In other words, are people who own dogs healthier because of their pets, or do they choose to own dogs because they are already healthier than non-owners?
The way to determine the true effects of pet ownership on health. I believe it may be possible to study this by interviewing people who chose to adopt a pet specifically to improve their emotional or physical health. They may have heard about the positive effects of pet ownership from the media or friends, or may have decided to get a pet on the advice of their health practitioner. If an “unhealthy” person acquired a pet for the explicit purpose of getting healthier, and if his or her health measurements (e.g., cardiovascular health, anxiety levels, feelings of depression, Body Mass Index, etc.) were reported before and after owning the pet, then it may be possible to discuss possible causal effects for that population. This potential longitudinal research study may help researchers go beyond correlation when studying pet ownership and health. However, while it is a valid and interesting possible study, it is beyond the scope of this literature review on the effects of pet ownership on health.
I welcome your thoughts below on how pet ownership affects your physical and emotional health. Woof!
Resources for how pet ownership affects your health:
- Allen, K., Blascovich, J., & Mendes, W. (2002). Cardiovascular reactivity and the presence of pets, friends, and spouses: The truth about cats and dogs. Psychosomatic Medicine, 64(5), 727-739.
- Anderson, W. P., Reid, C. M., & Jennings G.L. (1992). The Medical Journal of Australia, 157(5), 298-301.
- Bulcroft, K., & Albert, A. (1988). Pets, families, and the life course. Journal of Marriage and Family, 50(2)
- Cutt, H., Giles-Corti, B., Knuiman, M., & Burkeb, V. (2007). Dog ownership, health and physical activity: A critical review of the literature. Health & Place, 13(1), 261-272.
- Cutt, H., Giles-Corti, B., Knuiman, M., Timperio, A., & Bull, F. (2008). Understanding dog owners’ increased levels of physical activity: Results from RESIDE. American Journal of Public Health, 98(1), 66-69.
- Demello, L. (1999). The effect of the presence of a companion-animal on physiological changes following the termination of cognitive stressors. Psychology & Health, 14(5), 859-868.
- Friedmann, E., Honori, A., Lynch, J., & Thomas, S. (1980). Animal companions and one-year survival of patients after discharge from a coronary care unit. Public Health Reporter, 95(4), 307-312.
- McHarg, M., Baldock, C., Heady, B. W., & Robinson, A. (1995). National pets and people Survey. Urban Animal Management Coalition.
- Pachana, N., Ford, J., Andrew, B., & Dobson, A. (2005). Relations between companion animals and self-reported health in older women: Cause, effect or artifact? International Journal of Behavioral Medicine, 12(2), 103-110.
- Parslow, R., & Jorm, A. (2003). The impact of pet ownership on health and health service use: Results from a community sample of Australians aged 40 to 44 years. Anthrozoos: A Multidisciplinary Journal of the Interactions of People & Animals, 16(1), 43-56.