Wednesday, 5 October 2011

Are our furry friends really good for us?

In Western countries, many people own pets. On the one hand, there is a widespread belief that pets can improve their owners’ health, well-being, and longevity. On the other hand, it is known that pets can be carriers of diseases, are often the reason for conflicts with neighbours, and even cause injuries, not only because they bite people, but also because they are the reason for falls. Moreover, pets cost a lot of money. Taking this into account, is there really a benefit in owning a pet?

In his article published in the journal “Current Directions in Psychological Science”, Harold Herzog reviews evidence for the notion that pets are beneficial for people’s health and well-being. For example, researchers found pets have a positive impact on blood pressure, that they improve their owners’ self-esteem, mood, or life satisfaction, and that pet owners report lower levels of loneliness. The author also summarises studies that report no difference between pet owners and people who don’t own a pet with respect to health and well-being. Some studies even found pet owners to be worse off than non pet owners. Herzog comes to the conclusion that these contradictory findings result from methodological problems. For example, most studies did not use an experimental design, therefore it is not possible to determine a causal relationship between pet ownership and health or well-being. Furthermore, self-report measures are used, which may not reflect true changes in health. These are just some of the problems he names.

So, are pets good for us, or aren’t they? Divya Menon summarises the study on the APS homepage, and she comes to the same conclusion Herzog does: We need more research on the topic. And she considers it likely that some people might benefit from the human-animal relationship, while others might not.

Therefore, whenever coming across a study reporting that pets are beneficial for humans, remain sceptical because this fact is far from proven. However, one thing can be observed in many of the studies: Pet owners seem to feel happier, even if they are by objective measures neither better off nor healthier than their peers who don’t own a pet. And that is at least something!

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