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...
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)?