An op-ed article in the New York Times this week suggests that pets may not have much, if any, positive effect on health or well being. In his article, psychology professor Hal Herzog, author of Some We Love, Some We Hate, Some We Eat: Why Its So Hard To Think Straight About Animals, goes so far as to say that pets may actually have a negative effect on us.
He acknowledges that past research has shown that pets are healthy for us, with studies showing “that stroking an animal lowers blood pressure, that AIDS patients living with pets are less depressed and that pet owners have lower cholesterol levels, sleep more soundly, exercise more and take fewer sick days than non-pet owners.” But in the same breath, he says he has found stacks of research showing the opposite: “…that pets have either no long-term effects or have even adverse effects on physical and mental health.”
A 2006 survey of Americans by the Pew Research Center, for instance, reported that living with a pet did not make people any happier. Similarly, a 2000 Australian study of mortality rates found no evidence that pet owners lived any longer than anyone else. And last year Dutch researchers concluded that companion animals had no effect on their owners physical or mental well-being. Worse, in 2006, epidemiologists in Finland reported that pet owners were more likely than non-pet owners to suffer from sciatica, kidney disease, arthritis, migraines, panic attacks, high blood pressure and depression.
This pattern of mixed results also holds true for the widely heralded notion that animals can cure various physical afflictions. For example, a study of people with chronic fatigue syndrome found that while pet owners believed that interacting with their pets relieved their symptoms, objective analysis revealed that they were just as tired, stressed, worried and unhappy as sufferers in a control group who had no pets. Similarly, a clinical trial of cancer patients undergoing radiation therapy found that interacting with therapy dogs did no more to enhance the participants morale than reading a book did.
Herzog says pets are central to his life, and that he doesn’t mean to diminish their importance as companions. But he’d like to see better research that separates wishful thinking from the truth. According to Herzog, this kind of research is being done now, via a multimillion-dollar research initiative by the National Institutes of Health, in conjunction with Mars (maker of major pet foods).
It will be interesting to see what this research shows. Meanwhile, let’s do our own Dogster “study” and contribute some anecdotal evidence to the mix. Unfortunately the scientific method won’t work in our situation, with Dogster readers spread out across the globe. But I’ll bet you can give the skeptics some fantastic examples of how your dogs have helped you be happier and/or healthier through the years.