New research dispels the common belief that having a pet leads to a happier, healthier or longer life. These perceptions are not necessarily inaccurate, a psychologist asserts, but they have not been proven.
In a new article in the August issue of Current Directions in Psychological Science, Dr. Harold Herzog argues that existing research on pet ownership has produced very conflicting results. While some studies suggest that owning a pet is associated with positive health outcomes like reduced rates of depression or lower blood pressure, other studies suggest that pet owners are no better off, and may even be worse off in some ways, than people who don’t own pets.
The reason for these inconsistencies, said Herzog, is that studies on pet ownership often suffer from methodological problems, such as small, homogeneous samples, lack of appropriate control groups, and reliance on self-report to measure participants’ health and well-being.
Furthermore, very few studies have used the kind of experimental design necessary to show that pets actually cause improvements in their owner’s health and happiness.
Herzog is quick to point out that he himself is a pet owner and pet lover. “I’m not trying to denigrate the role of animals in human life, I’m trying to do just the opposite,” he said.
“It’s entirely plausible that our pets really do provide medical and psychological benefits, but we just don’t know how strong that effect is, what types of people it works for, and what the underlying biological and psychological mechanisms might be.”
The value of pets as psychological companions has led to a blurring between what we consider companion animals and what we consider therapeutic or service animals.
Herzog notes that the Americans with Disabilities Act had to be revised recently in order to clarify the fact that only trained dogs and miniature horses that fulfill a specific service function could legally qualify as service animals.
In order to truly understand the effects that pets have on our lives, Herzog said we need more rigorous research.
Humans have valued animal companionship since the beginning of civilization. Experts agree that research on human-animal relationships is important because it “offers a window into really big issues in human psychology” and can help to shed light on many of our cultural and ethical practices.
On a more practical level, it’s clear that pets can serve a therapeutic function in certain situations – the issue is figuring out which ones. “Let’s say it turns out that some kids with autism benefit from interacting with animals – wouldn’t it be great to be able to know which kids are going to benefit and which aren’t?” he said.
Herzog points out that the scientific community is starting to take these issues seriously.
In 2008, the National Institutes of Health began a program to fund studies that examine the medical and psychological benefits of pets on children. Herzog is encouraged that psychological scientists are really becoming involved in this research.
“I think in five years we’re going to have some answers to our questions,” he said.