May 22, 2009

Are Pets Good for Your Health?

So there's good news and bad news to report about the effects of pet ownership on your health.

Now would it make you want to run out and adopt a pet if a study said it was good for you? Or give up a pet if a study said it was bad? As it happens, I have some opinions on that subject (surprise!) which I'll get into in a moment.

But first, the bad news:

According to the New York Times, our cats and dogs are sending us to emergency rooms at alarming rates. Is it because they're all of a sudden attacking us? Should you take the quiz to discover if your cat is plotting to kill you?

Nah, this article wasn't about animal attacks. It turns out that we humans don't just fall for our pets, we actually fall over them. Yes, falls caused by pets send more than 86,000 people a year to the emergency room, which is five times as many as are hurt by unintentional gunshots. Dogs were involved in 88% of the accidents, though goodness knows cats try their darndest to be underfoot when you least expect them. (They may indeed be conspiring to kill us, but they're not all that good at it yet).

Now the good news!

So a few weeks ago, the Boston Globe ran an article collecting some of the recent research on the health benefits of pet ownership.

And the latest one was good news for cat owners--apparently people who own (or, more accurately, are owned by) cats are 40% less likely to die of heart attacks than other folks. Which seems like a big number! And the researchers took into account other risk factors like age, weight, gender, race, smoking, and cholesterol.

(Um, dog owners? Sorry, in this study, they didn't get the benefits).

But in other studies of pet ownership and health benefits, dogs came out ahead. Dog owners had lower blood pressure and cholesterol, fewer minor physical ailments and were less likely to have more serious medical problems both psychological and physical, than other folks, while cat-owning benefits were not as pronounced. Oh, and since dogs need walking, dog owners get more exercise than other people. Which common sense says is a good thing.

The Problem With Pet-Ownership Studies
As a pet owner, I love these studies! I love any study that says something I'm already doing is good for me. And intuitively, it does seem that pets can confer so many psychological benefits that this could really positively impact physical health as well.

But... I don't actually put too much stock in them. Why not? Because researchers can't just take a big group of people and randomly force half of them to go petless, and then force the other half to care for pets whether they want them or not. So instead, researchers will probably always be looking at people who choose to have pets, versus people who don't. And who knows how much difference is due to having the pets, versus the kind of personalities and lifestyles that drive these choices?

But heck, as a cat owner: yay!

Pets as Medicine
So even if it is the pet ownership causing the health benefits, I think studies like these are a dumb reason for people to run out and get a pet. (And yeah, I also wrote a post about this over at Diet Blog a long time ago). It's just that I worry whenever there's an article like this that people will think about buying a pet like it's a health supplement--some new high-antioxidant acai berry drink or something. (And just in case that analogy was too confusing: You should not attempt to eat or drink your pet! Ingesting your pet will not grant you any health benefits at all!)

Yes, I'm one of those sentimental softies who thinks we should not view pets as just "things" we own. There are already too many people who see them solely as decorative accessories, status symbols, or burglar alarms. We do not need to add a whole bunch more pet owners who view their pets as furry exercise equipment or purring blood pressure medication.

So sure, if you love animals and want one anyway and are weighing the pros and cons, these possible health benefits are a good "pro" for the list. But the best reason to get a pet because it's an incredibly rewarding relationship and it's worth all the considerable trouble.

Trouble? Why, yes, at least a little. Pets are complicated, amazing, frustrating, hilarious, loving, obstinate, unpredictable creatures. They have needs and they must be cared for, and this is sometimes involves a significant amount of work. (Cats way less than dogs, thank goodness).

But in the normal course of events, the amount of pleasure an animal gives totally outweighs the amount of hassle it takes to care for them. But there are gonna be hair-pulling stressful days as well as joyous ones. Someone who is looking for a prescription rather than a companion may not be prepared to deal with the "side effects": vet bills, barking, hairballs, cat boxes, dog poop where you least expect it, the need for obedience training if you have a dog, the need to be trained if you have a cat, fleas, the threat of lawsuits, the limits on traveling or after-work activities, the curtailment of dinner parties if it turns out that 80% of your friends are allergic to your cat... the list goes on and on.

This subject has been on my mind a bit lately, as we have an 18 year old cat whom we love very much. Alas, her health is beginning to decline, and we don't know how much longer we'll get to share our days with her. (And yes, this is the same cat who went through something of an artistic phase, but fortunately she moved on to other forms of self-expression after we changed her cat food. Now instead of "scooting," she stages cat operas at 3 or 4 in the morning. These come complete with dramatic entrances, exits, and lots and lots of bellowing.)

Has her ownership of us for the last eighteen years lessened our chances of a heart attack? Who the heck knows! She's a wonderful cat and has been an entertaining and loving companion. (And I'm not going to write a eulogy yet 'cause there's a good chance she'll rally and be around for many years to come.) We wouldn't trade our time with her for anything, even if it didn't do a thing for our health. And at least she hasn't sent us to the emergency room...

... yet.

What about you folks, do you think having pets or not having pets has an impact on your health? What do you like about having them around (or not)?


  1. My cat Jazz was awesome...was definitely an independent cat, didn't sit in laps but sat right by my head on the couch and right by my head in bed at night. Although he could be a pain, he would sit outside my door every night at some random hour, usually 2am or 3am cry cry cry until I chased him around the apartment one lap and then he'd jump back into bed and go to sleep. While now I'm wide awake with adrenaline pumping, I don't know if that's going to keep away a heart attack or give me one. But I love the way pets are so in tune with our emotions, if ever I was sad, lonely or upset, there he was to purr in my ear.

    Even when nobody else loves you, your pets do.

  2. BK's allergic to cats, and while I think they're cute, I don't like their attitude.

    We are, however, getting either a poodle (black, standard) or a dobermann, and naming it Ninja. We will then teach Ninja commands, like "Ninja, attack" (play dead), and "Ninja, stealth" (speak)

  3. We've collected two abandoned dogs and two cats over the last few years. I would never trade their love, affection and craziness. The way the dogs smile at me when I get home, the way the cats purr and follow me around the house. I think I'm a much more relaxed and happy person for their company.

  4. I can't imagine our home without our two cats... Sure, they fidget all over the bed at night, get under our feet and sometimes give us fleas, but they make me laugh... and when they stare at me in total and utter adoration, my world is complete. This has got to be good for my health!

    I've also read that children who grow up from a young age with pets in the home have fewer allergies...

  5. Love this post! I'm so sorry that your cat is on the decline - they really do become members of the family. Our last yellow lab, Yogi, was in the throes of her second bout with cancer and other complications and seemingly was on last (4) legs. We made the tough decision to put her down twice and each time she rallied as if she had overheard and understood the phone call to the vet. Alas, she did pass about a year later in our arms.

    Scooby, our current lab/mix shelter dog nutjob, gives me endless happiness. He often will come sit at my feet when I'm very upset about something - one trick I can't seem to train my husband to do. But there have been countless times when he has caused me near-death experiences on the stairs (something my husband is very keen about receiving training for). Still, the dog is always there and loves unconditionally...and why wouldn't he? I feed him.

  6. I don't know if it's good for my health, but ever since I was found by my cat, Mr. Kitty, I've learned it's good for her health :-)

  7. Current count is 5 cats, 4 foster kittens ready for adoption, 3 foster kittens weaned and almost ready for adoption, 3 foster kittens still bottle feeding, and the squirrel.

    In the past we have also had the pleasure of several other cats (ours and fosters), 3 birds, 2 ferrets, a rat and a snake. All of them lived to ripe old ages, except the fosters that were adopted out.

    Between the little animals and the big animals (4 kids and a husband), no wonder I put the word "messy" in my name. ;)

    You are right, though, I wouldn't trade any of them.


  8. Totally wish we could have kitties. Husband is allergic or we'd have a houseful. We make do with the neighbor cats who stop by to drink from the rain barrel and check their messages in the rhubarb patch.

    I find purring soothing and calming and cats in general are good for the soul. Dogs have their moments, too.

  9. I'm not sure what I would do without my 2 cats. I would definitely like to get a dog at some point but I won't be able to do that until I move into a house and my oldest cat passes away. He'll be 14 in July, but he's in seemingly good health except for this skin irritation he picked up about a year ago. The vet said it's probably an allergy, but to what? I'm not sure and neither is she.

    -Kelly M.

  10. I adore my cats! Husband doesn't like dogs, otherwise we might have one of those too, but I am definitely a cat person at heart. They are work to take care of. They throw up hairballs. They walk all over me in the middle of the night. They get underfoot - one of these days I'll trip over one of them on the stairs and really hurt myself.

    But they are members of the family. They have definite personalities and I believe it is my job to take care of them as best I can. I absolutely believe the benefits outweigh the inconveniences.

  11. We adore our dog. She's one of the family. She makes the stress of grad school so much less (she couldn't care less, she just wants me to pet her or play with her). It's great. The best thing is how she helps me when I'm having rough days. We go ther after my mom passed (about a month afterwards). Whenever I'm upset, she crawls into my lab and just lets me hold her. You would never believe how comforting that is. No fixing, just holding. She's my biggest supporter, especially with walks! I don't know what I'd do without her. Unconditional love is always great.

  12. I agree completely with your points about pets. A part of me also believes that the kind of person who selflessly is willing to care and provide for a dependent creature other than herself is bound to be healthier. At least that's what I want to believe, since right now I can't have any pets. (I live in a small apartment, am away at work all day, and am dreadfully allergic to cats, which pains me because I grew up-- sneezing and wheezing-- with four and adore them.)

  13. I grew up with a ton of pets and couldn't have cared less whether or not they were "good for me" (my bunny sure wasn't!) because I just loved the fur off those little guys! And yet... we have no pets now. I really really want my kids to have the experience of a pet but I want someone else to take care of it. I can barely wipe all the human butts in my house much less an animal one. Do you think they have pet nannys? Maybe someday...

  14. Pets bring unconditional love and affection into people's lives. That can only be a good thing.

    I love my cats. They are major parts of my family. When Athena passed away in September, we were all heartbroken. And even though her brother, Sneezer, can be a total pain in the ass, he is still our baby and we love him beyond reason. He's not really a baby anymore at the ripe old age of 15, but he will always be my baby no matter what age he reaches or how entrenched his feline senility becomes.

  15. I've got it all covered - 2 cats and 1 dog. The dog rules, of course. (The cats pretend to allow it)

    I've always had pets whenever possible, and probably always will.
    They become part of the family and I'm sure they help with keeping me sane.

    Good point about not getting a pet simply as an aid to your health. If you truly don't like animals, buy some fish oil if you want to do something for your health!

    Sorry to hear your cat is unwell - I hope she rallies!

  16. I totally agree that pets are good for your health!! Especially psychologically! I have 2 dogs and even though they are a lot of work, they are so worth it! When I am having a bad day they cheer me up by doing something so ridiculous, they are always happy to see me and never care if I have a bad hair day! I just loooove them!

  17. I don't care what any study says, pets are totally good for your mental well being. We have 2 dogs, 2 cats & a leopard gecko (don't get much affection from him.) The cats & 1 of the dogs was a rescue but I love them just the same. It's funny but I never ever had a dog growing up and when I met my husband (and his dog) I was a bit nervous since I had never cared for a dog didn't help that the dog was a 130lb great dane either! But I love Mojo like he is a part of the family. We affectionately refer to our pets as our furbabies because we spoil them like some might spoil their children.

    Studies smudies, I wouldn't trade the love & loyalty (not to mention hours of entertainment) from my pets for anything!

  18. According to that quiz, there's an 83% chance my cat is trying to kill me.

    I think they seriously underestimate her evilness.

    I love that cat, though, despite her psychosis. Or maybe because of it? I don't know if she's helping my health but I know that when she's not tripping me, I actually love having her around. Especially when I lay down because my chest is her favorite spot. :) I hope she's around for many years to come.

  19. My dogs are great company, great amusement, and a wonderful addition to my life. I would not be sane without their presence at the moment.

    At the same time, dogs are like toddlers- you can't just leave the house for hours on end. They need let out, water and food. Boarding them for a trip is EXPENSIVE. So they are a bit of burden, too.

    Overall I'll still keep them.. but some days I feel like I signed on to be a dog babysitter.

  20. It's difficult for me to imagine anyone having the mindset of keeping a pet specifically as a health aid.. though health benefits don't surprise me one bit.

    It's unconditional love and being needed (and in the case of cat - kneaded). They make us laugh. They offer a loving touch. They are companions. How could this not improve our physical, mental and emotional health?

    As for the midnight opera. Both of my females (long gone now) did that as they entered old age. I believe it accompanied their diminished hearing.

  21. "...stages cat operas at 3 or 4 in the morning..." I'm totally laughing in sympathy over here. My 18 year old Norwegian Forest cat has taken to the same act. If my hubby had his way, he'd have been "relieved of his misery" long ago. But every time I think it's the end...he's acting all a-kitten again. It's such a tug of war on the heart.

    I'm a cat person. My hubby is a no-pet person. But I came with 3 cats, and it was take us all or take none. Buster (the 18yrold) is the only one of the trio left, but we've adopted 2 more. I can't have a house without cats. I firmly believe they make our lives better. The comfort of a cat on your lap or keeping you warm in bed is priceless. convince the hubby we need a puppy once we move to our new house with a fair size of land for said puppy to run!

  22. How can pets be anything but good for you? My family is loving, but nobody gets so overjoyed when I walk in the door that they have to jump up and down -- except the dog.

    And have you considered sending the Moo to your local opera house to see if her talent is marketable? Could be an opening in some opera for a singing cat. Never know.

  23. We recently got a dog, so I'm walking more than ever now (border collie = lots of exercise needed).

    But, at heart, I am a cat person. So, when my beloved cat died last Feb, I was determined to get a new one. We got our new kitten two weeks ago. (Pictures of him are in my family blog at )

    I think they both improve my health. :)

  24. Pets rule. Growing up, I had two cats and a dog. In college/early 20's I was pet-less. Then, in grad school, I met a man with a dog. An Alaskan Malamute, to be precise, and it was love at first sight. Of both man and Malamute. (Which was good, since he wouldn't even ask me out until he saw whether or not the dog liked me.)
    There is a picture of that dog in our wedding album, along with our other two dogs. Sadly, he and one of the others have since passed on, but we still have our mutt. She's a corgi-pitbull mix, whom we adopted at 6 months from a shelter and is now 11 years old. She loves and protects us and our kids, is patient, and believes that every child in the world is her personal responsibility.
    I'd love to have a cat, as well, but Hubby is allergic. So I am reduced to stalking the neighbors' cats.
    I hope your cat is doing well!

  25. I love my 2 cats, but they do occasionally rush ahead of me to the stairs and then trip me going down. I'm glad it's only 6 steps down them or I'm sure I'd have hurt myself much more by now.
    Pets are definitely good for you. I'll never understand how they can be things to people. To everyone I know, they are family.

    They cause stress tho - when they aren't well. A friend of mine has a newly diabatic cat and works shifts and now has to find a new home for her little buddy as she can't care for him properly...she is very stressed out and unhappy. Just like if a family member was sick...

    Tricia - may I suggest a Devon Rex Cat if BK is allergic? I've a friend who is very allergic to cats and dogs and they have 2 of them. They're nmore fizzy than fluffy, but are very friendly little guys...

  26. BadCat and BadKitten do have that annoying little habit of trying to trip me when I am heading down to the laundry room..of course with a bit basketful of laundry in my arms! But they are still kinda cute...and they are well worth everything! Wouldn't trade the annoying little furballs for anything!

  27. The first cat I cared for had a run-in with either a lawn mower or a motorcycle; subsequently we referred to her as "Tripod." She later developed feline leukemia. My first dog died very young of heart disease and my second died even younger of epilepsy. They all required multiple visits to the emergency vet, tons of tests, medication and procedures. Not to mention the heartache of seeing a beloved animal go through the pain and illness.

    Although I'm currently petless I have nightmares that I forget that I have a pet and go out of town and leave them alone while they slowly starve to death.

    I'm one of those people where the benefits of pet companionship are outweighed by the stress.

  28. I agree with you that it is important to weight the decision of getting a pet. Pets, in general, take a lot of work. Unfortunately, not everyone thinks about this and many animals wind up in shelters and rescues.

    The thing I find absolutely fascinating is the human-animal bond. It can be an incredibly unique and beautiful thing when all parties are benefiting the same way.

    Personally, I am owned by four dogs. I do not know what I'd do without them. They have been there for me through thick and thin and offered so many more lessons than I could have possibly ever dreamed.

  29. Yeah, the studies cannot be accurate - people with better, larger homes can afford pets while some in smaller, rented housing can't have them. Surely those people in smaller,rented housing are poorer and therefore less healthy. Hmmmm.

    My elderly cat does the bellowing too. Why do they do that when they get old?

  30. First, the pics & quiz..too funny! I had every kind of pet & more under the sun growing up. My poor parents but they loved them too! We lived back east with land & room for them so it was different.

    Here in CA where I live, really not a lot of room for animals. My hubby is allergic to cats so.. and we also are not home owners so that stops us too. BUT, when I was working umpteen hours, I would not have wanted to put an animal thru that. Now, really can't have them due to circumstances & can't afford it either. BUT, if I could, the health thing would not matter to me... it would be just because I wanted one & nothing else. I see how much joy they bring to other people.. beyond that Dam* dog that took 5 bites out of me last year!

  31. I never grew up with a dog. 6 years ago, we inherited my Aunts dog after she suffered a stroke and was unable to keep him in her new apt. He is the sweetest thing and I don't know what we would do with out him. He has his own personality, his own little quirks and attitude. Its great entertainment and company for all of us!

    As to whether its good/bad for your health-ehh. To each there own. I've always heard elderly people enjoying pets for the companionship. I even know a few stories of friends grandma's who are unable to have pets because its against their condo rules. Well wouldn't you know they go get a doctor's note saying they need the pet for health purposes. I was hysterical when I heard that, I really thought I was in an episode of Seinfeld! (its against Del Boca Vista's rules! hehe)

  32. Wow, I love hearing all these pet stories!

    And it's interesting to hear how many older cats do the bellowing thing... ours was always a quiet thing, with a very polite, subdued, sweet voice. Now she's a drunken, ill-tempered sailor on shore leave until she snaps out of it a few minutes later. (Only to schedule repeat performances throughout the day).

    (Oh, and Amy I have a similar nightmare--that I've somehow "forgotten" I had a bunch of cats, and I feel terrible that I haven't fed them for weeks and can't even find half of them. Sigh).

  33. My wife and I have two Beagles; rescued, of course. They bring such joy to our lives that I can't imagine life without them. Bottom line; there's nothing bad about pets, they're pure love.

  34. "I love any study that says something I'm already doing is good for me."

    To this, I say, "Amen, sister!"

    For me, it would feel somehow wrong not to live with a cat.

  35. my cat died in september, so all i have left are The Big Black Dogs. they are very frustrating, mostly due to my husband's constant complaints. left on our own, we are much happier.

  36. My furbabies have definitely impacted my physical AND mental health. Some of them have brought such joy (and sorrow when they passed), others sheer hell. I have scars all over my body from bites and scratches. The property damage makes me cry sometimes. And our newest cat--the orange monster--is so spazzy and needy that I have to work my morning schedule around him.

    But, I figure the damage doesn't come anywhere close to what I would have to put up with if I had kids. Nope.

  37. I was not an animal lover till I got married and my husband insisted we get a cat. I fought falling in love with that darn cat for quite some time but now I can't imagine life without her AND now I have a second cat I love just as much. I think my cats have a strong part to play in my current good health (I had some pretty serious health issues BC(before cats) and the love and joy they give me is priceless.

  38. Firstly:


    Poodles are half cat, half person and they are (especially standards) dignified, loyal, and extremely intelligent dogs with marvelous senses of humor. They have an exceptionally good nature (I'm not counting toys, but many are good dogs). Standard Poodles are head turners too, Dobies, eh, they can scare people. Poodles are excellent at watching your property and bond tightly with their family, but don't have the potential to snap that the Dobies do. They're generally very trustworthy with young kids too, who tend to grab at dog's faces and necks, which to a dog is attack or dominance.

    They are truly about the best of the dog world. I'm predjudiced, I've had 5. I've also had German shepherds, Doxies, a pit mix, a Springer/Cocker Spaniel mix, a Norwegian Elkhound (a terrible dog), an Irish Setter, and a Lab. The Poodles all hands down had the best personalities and they are terribly codependent people pleasers, making them generally very well behaved. They do like lying on the top of the back of the couch though, very cat like. Mine does all sorts of tricks and taught himself to jump in the bathtub if he was going to puke or have to poop if he couldn't get outside. People think I am kidding when I say half cat, but that's awfully smart! I'd rather rinse and bleach the tub than clean the carpet!

    I've trained him to use his own natural mouthiness (they are water retrievers) to pick up stuff I drop and hand it too me, which will be even greater as I get older. He picks up my glasses, papers, water bottles, post-its, his leash, whatever. He loves having jobs to do. He's the official sock sorter for laundry time, he pulls them out of the dryer for me too.

    Plus the hugs and kisses and lap time are incredible stress relievers. If I can't sleep I just pull him into my arms, we snuggle up and off to dreamland we both go, and he won't move until I wake up.

    I don't need to take the test, he's the truest bud I'll ever have.

    And Crabby, just love on that Moo as much as you can. 18 for a cat is doing something right!

  39. It's hard watching our pets decline, but still worth having them. I never had anything but gerbils and fish as a kid, have had cats ever since. I'm thinking about getting a dog, since my landlord is okay with it. I'm attached to his dog, who is almost 16, has some kidney problems, is getting REALLY skinny. My first cat got really skinny and died, so I'm also afraid she won't be around much longer. She's been my good friend for a few years now, it makes me very sad. My cat is middle aged, usually I have two, but after almost not finding a place to live with two cats, I'm afraid in case I have to move again. Of course, a dog is even harder. I wish my dad would get a dog, but my mom says she'll leave if he does. Even more reason to get one, in my opinion.

  40. I love animals and they can do wonderful things for our health, but when I recently took care of my mums cat, the fur everywhere gave me a panic attack. So I think I'll stay away from keeping pets for a while, heh.

  41. All the best with your cat, 18 is a good age!
    I love cats and refused to marry my pet-less husband unless a cat moved in with us too.
    Fuzzy (cat not husband) was my first baby and my kids have learned a respect and love animals too. It's been good to teach them that animals have feelings too.

  42. Cats, dogs, whatever - a house without a pet doesn't feel like home to me. And I agree completely with the viewer who raved over poodles. They're such a great dog. I used to have 5 min poodles (along with the pig dogs, it made for a weird household!)

    Snuggles to your old cat, Crabby.

  43. I love my Mocha. We inspire and motivate one another lol.

  44. I hope Moo rallies!

    They are work and lots of it, but I can't imagine being without my cats. They make us laugh and a purr is priceless. Though I admit it, when a fly got in the house yesterday, I thought "Oh good, they'll be happily occupied while I go work in the yard." It's hard to find time to play with them every day.

    I think the health benefits are from laughing and smiling so much! You just can't think unhappy thoughts when looking at your happy kitties napping peacefully!

    And to think the allergist said I was allergic to cats when I was a child. I had a cat anyway, she slept in my bed against the allergist's advice. I sniffled every morning, but I guess I grew out of it, 'cuz now I don't.

    Happiness is a warm kitty!

  45. Well, health benefits are the least of the benefits you get from pet ownership- otherwise I would ditch the dog and buy a gym membership- to a FANCY gym. And probably still save money. But dogs, at least, sure do get you moving every day. We are having a fitness competition at work, where we measure time rather than intensity, and everyone keeps asking what the heck I am DOING to get so many points. And I say (honestly) an hour a day most days on the elliptical, plus I own a dog and dont have a yard, which is nearly always good for another hour and a half a day walking time, minimum. Regardless of my mood or what I would rather be doing. It's easy to skip the elliptical when I am tired. It is almost impossible to ignore a dog who needs his walk.

  46. Oh, I should add- our family cat did the bellowing thing a lot the last few years, and it turned out it was a symptom of her hyperthryroidism. Something to get checked if your cat is doing this. I mean, it could just be a symptom of cathood, too, and hyperthyroidism sucks in terms of having to give pills to resistant cats, but it is a relatively easy to treat thing that could make your old cat feel better.

  47. Peripatetic--


    And yep, she's just started on thyroid meds... it's been less than a week so it's too early to tell, but we have our fingers crossed that it will help her feel better.

    We'd suspected thyroid issues before, but her blood work came back negative. Now that it's shown up we at least have some ammunition!

    Though she has pretty bad arthritis as well, poor thing.


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