How often do you read about a study that says a pet is good for your health? Most of us would say fairly often. Apparently, only those that demonstrate health benefits hit the headlines, while others that either have no evidence or reveal some unpleasant data are ignored, researcher Howard Herzog revealed in the August issue of Current Directions in Psychological Science.
Professor Herzog, from Western Carolina University Psychology Department, says that prior studies on the impact pets might have on longevity and health have produced a mishmash of conflicting results.
“While pets are undoubtedly good for some people, there is presently insufficient evidence to support the contention that pet owners are healthier or happier or that they live longer (in comparison to those with no pets).
While some researchers have reported that positive effects accrue from interacting with animals, others have found that the health and happiness of pet owners is no better, and in some cases worse, than that of non-pet owners.” “
Herzog accepts that there have been several studies, like a 1980 one he cited which showed that pet owners are four times more likely to live for at least a year after a heart attack than others. However, he adds that studies with negative results tend either to be ignored, or simply do not reach the headlines.
“While the media abounds with stories 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 headlines.”
Herzog quoted a 2010 study which showed that people who owned a pet and had a heart attack were more likely to die within a year or suffer another heart attack, compared to petless people. He added that the study was not picked up by the media.
Another study apparently found that the blood pressure of elderly pet owners was no different from other people of the same age.
Pets bring with them diseases and allergies for humans, including skin mites, worms, salmonellosis, giardia and other parasites.
Some large scale studies performed in Europe, Australia and the USA did not appear to show any physical or psychological benefits associated with owning a pet.
Herzog stresses he is not anti-pets, he is a pet owner himself. He can see the benefits in specific cases, such as for children with autism. However, he believes humans need to approach studies on the benefits of pet ownership scientifically.
Until proper research is done and reported, whatever effect having a pet might have on humans will remain a hypothesis, and not an established fact, he wrote.
A study earlier this year, carried out by researchers from Miami University in Ohio, found that pet owners are generally fitter, have better self-esteem, are more conscientious and more socially communicative than people without pets. (Link to article)
A study by Michigan researchers found that dog owners had a 34% higher likelihood of attaining federal physical activity targets. (Link to article)