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Cat Health Linked to Health and Social Status of Owners

In veterinary school several professors mentioned that obese people often own obese animals. They theorized that the owners' eating and exercise habits were applied to...

Dr. Eric Barchas  |  Apr 14th 2010


In veterinary school several professors mentioned that obese people often own obese animals. They theorized that the owners’ eating and exercise habits were applied to the pets at home. As a clinician I have observed that trend, which is much stronger in dogs than in cats. (I have known plenty of in-shape people whose cats, despite good diets, were obese.)

I also have noticed another, more subtle trend. Healthy people are more likely to own healthy animals. This makes sense, especially for dogs. Dogs that run and hike with their owners are less likely to be overweight and more likely to be in shape. People who take care of themselves appear to be more likely to look out for their pets’ health. People who lack resources in general naturally lack the resources to provide the best care for their pets–anyone who has watched Precious will realize that.

DVM Newsmagazine recently reported on a study in Boston that backed up what many vets intuitively knew already: pet health is linked to owner health and social status.

Boston For veterinary clinicians, the correlation between animal health and the socioeconomic status of pet owners is probably obvious. But a new study makes a more definite link, connecting premature deaths among humans to those among animals in poor neighborhoods.

Human health disparities based on affluence are well noted, and now for the first time, Dr. Gary Patronek, VMD, PhD, of the Animal Rescue League of Boston, has made a similar connection for animal health.

“It’s the first study anywhere to demonstrate very rigorously how closely human and animal welfare are linked,” Patronek says. “The same kinds of things that lead to poor health outcomes in people are leading to poor health outcomes in animals.”

Looking at 16 neighborhoods around Boston and measuring the number and condition of cats taken to shelters, Patronek concludes “cat deaths were significantly correlated with human premature deaths at the neighborhood level.”

The news wasn’t all bad, however. Just as access to low-cost health care and lifestyle counseling can help impoverished people, access to low-cost veterinary care can help pets.

The only neighborhoods of the 16 studied that ran contrary to these findings were the Fenway neighborhood, which is low-income but has a high concentration of college students, and South Boston, which for years has been served by a small, adoption-guarantee shelter that provides low-cost veterinary services to the community. Cat premature mortality rates were about 50 percent less than expected in South Boston, the study notes, and “could be considered evidence of the potential impact of increased access to veterinary care for underserved populations.”

I have worked at a low-cost clinic in Oakland. The people served by the clinic definitely showed me that poor health among the pets of impoverished people is not due to lack of desire. It is due to a lack of means.

Photo: “Nikkul“.