It’s common wisdom that pets help confer certain physical and emotional health benefits to their owners. An advice column from The Times last month, in fact, suggested that the health benefits of pet ownership are global and generalized — that owning a pet has a positive correlation with wellbeing in most people. The research tells a different story, however — pet ownership can cause problems or be a burden for some.
Allen (2003) conducted a valuable review of the literature to-date about the benefits of pet ownership and concluded:
Several epidemiological and experimental studies have demonstrated that having a pet cat or dog can have significant cardiovascular benefits. Although the idea that a pet serves as social support may appear peculiar to some people, pet owners talk to and confide in their pets and describe them as important friends. […]
An important consideration, however, is that media reports of the ability of pets to lower blood pressure are often highly inflated and misrepresent actual research.
Pets can be a healthy pleasure and provide social support to their owners. But the effects and benefits are not global in nature, nor do they apply to all people all the time. Pets appear to have a social facilitation effect on their owners, helping their owners perform tasks better and with less stress. They also appear to have a stress buffering effect — when a person is in need of unrestricted positive regard, pets provide such to their owners.
But not everyone benefits from pet ownership.
For instance, in one study of 2,551 individuals aged 60 to 64 years old, the researchers found that those who had a pet in their home reported more depressive symptoms (Parslow et al., 2005). The study also found that female pet owners who were married also had poorer physical health. The researchers discovered that caring for a pet was associated with negative health outcomes including more symptoms of depression, poorer physical health and higher rates of use of pain relief medication. This study suggested that pet ownership amongst many older people is more of a burden than a benefit.
What about for younger folks? In a 2006 survey of 2,291 adults in the U.S., researchers found that unmarried women who live with a pet have the fewest depressive symptoms, and unmarried men who live with a pet have the most (Tower et al., 2006). The researchers concluded, “single women benefit from pet companionship, whereas single men may be burdened by it.”
A dissertation published in 2004 by Amanda Smith examined 38 married couples, half of which who owned dogs and half who did not. She found no significant differences between the two groups on marital communication, stress levels, constructive communications, marital satisfaction, or consideration of divorce. In other words, the dog didn’t help (or hurt) the marriage.
If you’re considering a pet for help with your health or stress levels, keep in mind that pets are a responsibility (just like a child), not toys or “playthings.” You must take care of them, have them spayed or neutered, and ensure they are healthy with regular veterinarian visits at least once every other year (if not every year). And for many people, pets become important, actual members of their family, with all that entails.
Read the full article: Can a pet ease depression?
Allen, K. (2003). Are Pets a Healthy Pleasure? The Influence of Pets on Blood Pressure (PDF). Current Directions in Psychological Science, 12(6), 236-239.
Parslow, R.A., Jorm, A.F., & Christensen, H. (2005). Pet Ownership and Health in Older Adults: Findings from a Survey of 2,551 Community-Based Australians Aged 60-64. Gerontology, 51(1), 40-47.
Smith, A.D. (2004). Marital functioning and dog ownership: An exploratory study. Dissertation Abstracts International: Section B: The Sciences and Engineering, 65(1-B), 453.
Tower, R.B. & Nokota, M. (2006). Pet companionship and depression: Results from a United States Internet sample. Anthrozoös, 19(1), 50-64.