The Evidence That Pets Are Good for People

The first demonstration of an association between pets and
health was an early study of 92 heart-attack victims in which
28% of pet owners survived for at least a year as compared to
only 6% of non–pet owners (Friedmann, Katcher, Lynch, &
Thomas, 1980). These findings generated a flurry of research
on the positive impact of interacting with companion animals
(see review by Wells, 2009a). For example, stroking dogs and
cats, watching tropical fish in an aquarium, and even caressing
a pet boa constrictor have been reported to reduce blood pres
sure and stress levels. The most convincing of these studies
was a clinical trial in which hypertensive stockbrokers were
randomly assigned to either pet or no-pet conditions. Six
months later, when put in a stressful situation, subjects in the
pet group showed lower increases in blood pressure than did
those in the non-pet control condition (Allen, Shykoff, & Izzo,
2001). Researchers have also reported that psychological ben
efits accrue from living with animals. These include studies
showing that pet owners have higher self-esteem, more posi
tive moods, more ambition, greater life satisfaction, and lower
levels of loneliness (El-Alayli, Lystad, Webb, Hollingsworth,
& Ciolli, 2006).
Epidemiologists have also connected pet ownership to bet
ter health and well-being (see review by Headey & Grabka,
2011). For example, among 11,000 German and Australian
adults, pet owners were in better physical condition than non-
pet owners, and they made 15% fewer doctor visits, a potential
savings of billions of dollars in national health expenditures.
And an epidemiological study of Chinese women found that
pet owners exercised more, slept better, felt more physically
fit, and missed fewer days from work than women without
pets. Further, these effects were particularly strong for indi
viduals who reported that they were very closely attached to
their pets.
Now the Bad News
Pet owners are, of course, delighted to read about research that
confirms the view that living with a dog or cat makes for a
happier and longer life. But while the media abounds with sto
ries extolling the health benefits of pets, studies in which pet
ownership has been found to have no impact or even negative

effects on human physical or mental health rarely make head
lines. For instance, there was no media coverage of a recent
study of 425 heart-attack victims that found pet owners were
likely than non–pet owners to die or suffer remissions
within a year of suffering their heart attack (22% vs. 14%;
Parker et al., 2010). Indeed, replication has been a persistent
problem with research on the effects of pets on human health.
Straatman, Hanson, Endenburg, and Mol (1997), for instance,
found that performing a stressful task in the presence of a dog
had no short-term effect on blood pressure. And a study of
1,179 older adults found no differences in the blood pressure
or risk of hypertension of pet and non–pet owners (Wright,
Kritz-Silverstein, Morton, Wingard, & Barrett-Connor, 2007).
(The pet owners in the study did, however, exercise less than
non-owners and were more apt to be overweight.)
The impact of pets on psychological well-being has also
been called into question. A Pew Research Center survey of
3,000 Americans found no differences in the proportion of pet
owners and nonowners who described themselves as “very
happy” (in Herzog, 2010). Researchers in England adminis
tered the UCLA–Loneliness scale to people who were seeking
a companion animal. When retested 6 months later, the indi
viduals who had acquired pets were just as lonely as they were
before they got their companion animal. In addition, they were
no happier than participants who had not gotten a pet (Gilbey,
McNicholas, & Collis, 2007). Another recent study found that
older adults who were highly attached to their dogs tended to
be more depressed than individuals who were not as attached
to their companion animals (Miltiades & Shearer, 2011).
Nor has pet ownership fared well in recent epidemiological
studies. A study of 40,000 Swedes found that while pet owners
were physically healthier than non–pet owners, they suffered
more from psychological problems including anxiety, chronic
tiredness, insomnia, and depression (Müllersdorf, Granström,
Sahlqvist, & Tillgren, 2010). A Finnish study of 21,000 adults
reported that pet owners were at increased risk for hyperten
sion, high cholesterol, gastric ulcers, migraine headaches,
depression, and panic attacks (Koivusilta & Ojanlatva, 2006).
In an Australian study of 2,551 elderly adults, dog ownership
was associated with poorer physical health and with depres
sion (Parslow, Jorm, Christensen, & Rodgers, 2005). Finally,
in a longitudinal study of nearly 12,000 American adults, cat
or dog ownership was unrelated to mortality rates (Gillum &
Obisesan, 2010).
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