Are pets good for your health?

With the increasing popularity of pets, many question the safety of it and effect on one's overall health before getting a fur baby.

Myupchar February 26, 2020 19:03:05 IST
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Are pets good for your health?

A new pet could be an idea you've been toying with for a while. Many people feel something is missing from their lives without one and others may be looking for someone non-judgemental and unapologetically fond of them. A pet certainly ticks a lot of boxes. Imagine coming home to a cuddly furball that collapses on the sofa next to you and just wants to be petted. Studies have shown that the simple act of lightly brushing a pet (this includes dogs, cats, and even pet boa constrictors) lowers blood pressure and stress and consoles the mood. 

Are pets good for your health

Representational image. Image by Lenka Novotná from Pixabay.

With the increasing popularity of pets, many question the safety of it and effect on one's overall health before getting a fur baby. What do scientific studies have to say about this? It turns out that the answer is not straightforward; the scientific community is divided on the therapeutic effects of pets. While having a pet can promote certain healthy, active behaviours, it remains to be seen if the pet itself is responsible for those health benefits. Let’s take a look at what we know so far. 

Your best friend 

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the health benefits of having a pet (this is most applicable to a cat or dog) include decreased blood pressure, cholesterol levels, triglyceride levels, feelings of loneliness and increased opportunities for exercise and socialization. The American Heart Association (AHA) also released a statement saying that pets promote better heart health and overall longevity. The increasing number of service and support animals back the theory that pets are good sources of social support that can lower levels of anxiety and stress. 

Large studies have yielded similar results. Among 11,000 adults, pet owners were in better physical shape than non-pet owners. They made 15% fewer hospital visits, missed fewer days of work and had higher levels of activity in their lives.

Other claims made by pet owners are that having a pet in the house increases compassion, especially in kids. It also instils a sense of responsibility and can (allegedly) boost the immune system by introducing foreign microbes into the household. It is hard to prove the former (how does one measure compassion or sense of responsibility?) and the latter has not been investigated rigorously yet either. 

While these seem to point to a straightforward positive correlation, the devil lies in the details. 

The deeper, murkier truths

Various literature reviews, which look at the results of several studies and conduct analysis based on them, have found that while pets are associated with certain positive health outcomes, the benefits vanish on looking at confounding factors such as socioeconomic status. What this means is that owning a pet could be an indicator of higher social status and better health, rather than the other way around. Having a pet is seen as an added perk to a comparatively privileged life that predetermines better health outcomes. 

To make the picture more complicated, other big studies have challenged the assertions that pets make for better heart health. A 2007 study that looked at 1,179 adults found no difference in blood pressure or risk of hypertension between pet and non-pet owners. Other major studies have found no difference in levels of happiness, depression, or loneliness. In fact, some large studies have even shown that pet owners are more likely to be depressed, lonely, have sleeping issues, and are at a higher risk of hypertension, gastric ulcers and high cholesterol.

The jury is well and truly out on whether pets promote good health. 

Why are there no decisive answers?

It is hard to pinpoint the effects pets have on our health because randomized controlled trials are hard to conduct to test out the hypothesis. There is no concept of placebo - you either have a pet or you don’t and it is not possible to randomly separate people based on pet ownership. 

Also, there is a dearth of long term studies. Cohort studies follow large populations over time to verify or dispute hypotheses and these have not been conducted to answer these questions yet. Therefore, saying that pets make children more empathetic is currently just speculation. 

What conclusions can be made from the current data?

For starters, perhaps the question of whether pets are good for your health is poorly structured. No credible health authority will recommend adopting a pet solely to boost your health and longevity - pets are in our lives for many reasons and the impact can’t really be measured using crude yardsticks. 

Adopting a pet is a personal decision, and isn’t right for everyone. Some people may have allergies, and certain vulnerable groups such as infants, pregnant women and the elderly could face adverse health effects from zoonosis (diseases transmitted from animals to humans).  

Away from all the data and the speculation, researchers unanimously agree that if a pet gives you and your family pleasure, then adopting one can be one of the most rewarding experiences of your life. 

For more such articles, please visit our section on Health Tips.

Health articles in Firstpost are written by, India’s first and biggest resource for verified medical information. At myUpchar, researchers and journalists work with doctors to bring you information on all things health.

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