As pet owners, people have a soft spot for their furry (or not) friend, and even believe that health benefits come with caring for a cat or a dog. But just because you have a pet, doesn’t necessarily make you healthier.
In a recent study from the RAND Corporation, researchers found that while looking at children in households with pets versus those without, the children in households with pets seemed healthier. However, once the researchers considered other factors, they found that their adjustments made the effects they had seen insignificant.
“Pro-pet research findings like this have been piling up since the 1980s. The results have ranged from less heart disease among pet owners to better rates of survival after heart attacks to a reduced risk of asthma and allergic rhinitis among kids who had been exposed to pet allergens as infants,” said James Hamblin, a doctor and writer for The Atlantic. “Over the decades there has come to be some sort of implicit consensus that pet ownership had benefits for human health.”
The study looked at household survey data from the 2003 California Health Interview Survey, and gathered information on 2,236 households with a dog or cat as well as 2,955 households without a dog or cat. Researchers said the initial results showed that households with pets seemed healthier, before they adjusted for other variables.
“Even the researchers didn’t want to find what they found,” Hamblin wrote.
The researchers said that their results showed strong confounding effects, and that before adjusting their analysis, households with pets were found to demonstrate better general health and a higher activity level than households without pets. Layla Parast, a biostatician with RAND, said the researchers expected to find direct benefits for pet owners.
“It was definitely our hypothesis that we’d find benefits,” she said. “We assumed it would be a very straightforward thing to show.”
Parast added that the group of researchers all loves pets, and that she grew up with a dog and a cat. She said the results probably have more to do with the people who own pets than the animals themselves.
“We’re not completely ruling out that pet ownership leads to good health,” she said. “We’re just saying you need to step back and see that people who own pets are different from people who don’t in a whole lot of ways.”
Hamblin noted that the study was cross-sectional, meaning that its main limitation was that it “only studied people at a single point in time.” He said a longitudinal study that followed participants over a long period of time would be needed to observe any major changes that might occur.
Parast said she believes there are positive benefits to owning pets, such as joy and companionship. Hamblin responded that both of Parast’s examples have been linked to mental and physical health.
“But we don’t have measures of long-term outcomes to test that,” she said. “I’ve heard people say that having a pet teaches responsibility, which is hard to measure. And if you really wanted to measure it, you’d test something like, 10 years later did this kid grow up to be someone who can hold a job?”
Other initial results from the study showed that households with pets also demonstrated less concern from parents regarding mood, behavior and learning ability. Hamblin argued for a study conducted over time to understand the possible benefits that come from pet ownership, and Parast agreed.
“That would be great,” she said. “I mean, gosh, I hope that would find something. It would be great to have a reason to hand out cuddly puppies to everyone who needs better health. I would be completely in favor of that. But there’s no scientific evidence right now that shows that.”