The Benefits of Pets: Do They Make Us Better Off?
Taking care of companion animals is a task which requires a lot of responsibility, time and tenacity. Often, it is an uphill battle, but at the end of this road, you earn a loyal and loving friend. While that in itself is indeed a reward worthy of all the effort, research has been done to study the effects that animal companionship has on us.
Do note that, yes indeed pets tend to make us happy and we know they make us better off, but the real question is if these perceived benefits, can translate into a statistical difference; and that- as you will come to see- is very difficult in itself.
Pets and Physical Health
Allen et al (2012) studied 240 married couples. Half of these were pet owners. They found that pet owners tended to have a lower blood pressure than non owners. They also had a lower spike in their heart rate, in response to a stressful stimulus, perhaps showing that pet owners may be more composed, in stressful situations.
Another study done by Anderson et al, involved a free screening clinic. They found that, while having a similar BMI (Body mass Index), Pet owners had lower systolic blood pressure (numerator value). However, one should note that the number of non- pet owners, was much, much higher (5741) than pet owners (784).
Studies have also confirmed that dog owners indeed are more likely to engage in physical activity than non owners and owners of other pets (Yabroff et al). A 12 month study on people who newly got a dog, found that they’re walk time per week increased significantly after getting a dog (Cutt et al). Young children in families which own a dog also have lower chances of becoming obese.
Looking at these studies, one may think “Wow, getting a pet must be pretty good for you”, but the truth is, that none of the results have been conclusive enough for most of these studies. One important factor in getting something conclusive is ‘reliability’. If the study is repeated, similar results should be retrieved. This, as you may have guessed, can be quite bothersome to do, given the varied sampling and research methods used. Another huge question mark is that, if pets really do help us become better, then how do they do it? And what do they do, that helps us?
Animal Assisted Therapy
In some scenarios having a pet by your side, can make a massive difference, and that shows. Take this study by O’Haire et al (2015), for example. They studied skin conductance in children with Autism and “Typically Developing” children in various conditions.
Skin conductance has been found to be a reliable measure of physiological arousal within a person. In simpler words, one can say it indicates the intensity of a person’s fear or emotion.
Now, in the study, the children with ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorder), showed high skin conductance (more arousal) in all conditions compared to TD children. In the presence of animals however, the children with ASD showed 43% less skin conductance, confirming that animal assisted therapy can be indeed very helpful.
In another study, the effectiveness of CAI (Canine Assisted Therapy) was tested in children with ADHD. Children who received CAI with CBT (Cognitive Behavioral Therapy) had reduced severity of symptoms compared to those who had only received CBT.
It is definitely true that AAT is very effective, and should be implemented as an aide for treatment of mental illnesses, but the question, I wanted to know the answer to was, “Will a normal healthy person who owns a pet be better off than a person who doesn’t?” Unfortunately, the answers to this question are not as clear as to those regarding AAT.
While there are many studies which are in favor of the ‘pet effect’, their results are often not significant enough to make a difference. Due to our personal beliefs as pet owners, we tend to gravitate towards these studies, as they confirm these personal beliefs. Perhaps it is for this reason that the many studies that are not in favor of the pet effect, are often left in the dark; an issue brought to light by Hal Herzog in his article “The impact of pets on human health and their psychological well being”. Herzog has pointed out that in some studies pet owners have been found to have more problems than non-owners. Individuals who were looking for a pet were measured for loneliness by researchers in England. They were measured six months later, after they had gotten a pet and were found to be just as lonely, same as those who had not gotten one (Gilbey et al 2007).
At the end of the day, I would love my dogs, regardless of whether or not they came with health benefits. But despite that, it was important to shed some light on this subject. Perhaps one day, science can statistically prove that, great things can happen when animals and humans cooperate- and even if it disproves it, we’ll at least be one step closer to the truth.
Levine, G. N., Allen, K., Braun, L. T., Christian, H. E., Friedmann, E., Taubert, K. A., . . . Lange, R. A. (2013). Pet Ownership and Cardiovascular Risk. Circulation,127(23), 2353-2363. doi:10.1161/cir.0b013e31829201e1
Beck, Alan & H Katcher, A. (1984). A New Look at Pet-Facilitated Therapy. Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association. 184. 414-21.
Poestges, A., Gresser, U., & Richartz, B. M. (2016, July 31). The Impact of a Pet, in This Case a Dog, on Physical Activity, Independence, Social Contacts, Health and Quality of Life of Elderly People. Retrieved from http://www.scirp.org/Journal/PaperInformation.aspx?PaperID=69699
Schuck, S. E. B., Emmerson, N. A., Fine, A. H., & Lakes, K. D. (2015, February). Canine-assisted therapy for children with ADHD: preliminary findings from the positive assertive cooperative kids study. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4348044/
O’Haire, M. E., McKenzie, S. J., Beck, A. M., & Slaughter, V. (2015, July). Animals may act as social buffers: Skin conductance arousal in children with autism spectrum disorder in a social context. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25913902
Herzog, H. (2011). The impact of pets on human health and psychological well-being: fact, fiction, or hypothesis Current Directions in Psychological Science, 20(4), 236-239.