How Pets Influence our Health and Well-Being (Studies)

There is a saying that a dog is a man’s best friend.

Keeping pets is a phenomenon that exists in most cultures. Among the psychological theories for doing so is the theory of parental instincts, the biological love of nature, the tendency to use pets for showing off, the need to dominate the natural world, coping with loneliness, and the desire to teach youngsters responsibility and kindness.

The pet effect

The idea that pets have a positive influence on our health and well-being has been called the pet effect. But is it true (scientifically) that pets have such an impact on us? Since I love pets, I would like to say yes!

Herzog (2011) did a review of the impact of pets on our health and well-being, and the evidence is actually rather ambiguous. Let’s go through some of the studies.

Positive evidence

Here is a selection of the positive evidence, i.e. evidence that supports the pet effect. Many people benefit from keeping pets: They are pleasurable and they bring unconditional love and support.

One study found that 11,000 German and Australian pet owners had better physical health than non-pet owners, and they did not visit their doctors as often (15% less).

Another study found that Chinese pet-owning women exercised more, slept better, and missed fewer days from work than women without pets, and this association was particularly strong for pet-owners, who reported to be closely attached to their pets.

In a randomized clinical trial, hypertensive individuals were assigned to either a pet or non-pet condition. After six months of pet companionship, those in the pet condition showed lower blood pressures, when they were in a stressful situation, than those of the control group.

Negative evidence

Now to the more “negative” evidence, i.e. evidence that does not support the pet effect. Deborah Wells examined how pets affected chronic fatigue patients. Her study showed that while patients claimed that their pets provided them with psychological and physical benefits, the objective scores of those outcomes did not indicate so. As a result, they were just as tired, depressed, worried and stressed as other chronic fatigue patients.

A study of 3,000 Americans found no differences in pet- and non-pet owners in terms of people who reported to be “very happy”. Another study of 40,000 Swedes suggests that pet owners were physically healthier, but they suffered more from psychological problems such as anxiety, chronic fatigue, sleeping problems and depression at the same time.

A third Finnish study of 21,000 adults found that pet-owners were of increased risk of hypertension, migraine, heightened cholesterol, depression and panic attacks. At last, an Australian study of 2,551 elderly adults showed that owning a dog was associated with poorer physical health, and even depression.

So, is the pet effect supported by evidence? Herzog argues that the pet effect does not exist: he states that it is an “unsubstantiated hypothesis”. However, others find that the literature is largely supportive of the pet effect (Wells, 2009).

Taken together, we might say that keeping pets is not always associated with happiness, better physical health and well-being, as it is often mentioned in the media. The literature suggests that it is not as clear-cut as it is often presented to be.

I would like to hear your experience.

Photo: Jens Schott Knudsen