There is a wide range of research that points to the positive impact pets have on our general health. Not all of it, however, is able to prove cause and effect. Longitudinal research, which examines the health of an individual before and after pet acquisition, seems to establish the case more clearly. For example, it can be argued that people who are healthy are more likely to own a pet, rather than particular health benefits being the result of pet ownership.
- English scientist James Serpell conducted a longitudinal intervention study where three groups of people were recruited and the first given dogs, the second cats, and members of the third did not receive a pet. Before the intervention, all three groups had similar results for a self reported assessment of general health. One month later, the reports of minor illnesses and complaints had substantially reduced in the pet groups, and in the case of the dog group (but not the cat), this remained true for the ten month duration of the study.1 The difference between the dog and cat effect may be because dog owners take more exercise.
- In a German longitudinal study of 225 occupants in nursing homes, half the group were given pet budgerigars. The conclusion six weeks later was that “budgerigars can effectively intervene in processes of aging, increasing the physical, social and psychological quality of life in old age.” 2 Several studies have shown that pet ownership may reduce the need for medical services.
- In a United States study of 938 Medicare enrollees, pet owners reported fewer doctor contacts during a one year period than non-owners. 3
- Jorm et al’s subsequent examination of Australian Medicare records of elderly subjects (mean age 79.9) which found no difference in use of health services between pet owners and non-pet owners 4 indicates that the health benefits may not extend equally to all members of the community. It still seems, however, that animal companionship may have a significant positive impact on the nation’s health.
- German, Australian and Chinese data indicate that pet owners make fewer annual doctor visits than non-owners, and that the relationship remains statistically significant after controlling for gender, age, marital status, income and other variables associated with health. Research by Headey et al has compared Australian pet owners to those in Germany and China, and found that the health benefits of pet ownership for the general community exist in the populations of all three countries, particularly for the long term pet owners.5 The German and Australian results were the first national representative surveys to show that (1) people who continuously own a pet are the healthiest group (2) people who acquire a pet after not previously owning one are the second healthiest group and (3) people who cease to have a pet or never had one, are the least healthy groups.
- Serpell, JA, 1991,’Benefi cial effects of pet ownership on some aspects of human health’, Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine, vol.84, pp. 717-720.
- Olbrich, E, 1995, ‘Budgerigars in Old People's Homes: influence on behaviour and quality of life’, Conference proceedings at Animals, Health and Quality of Life, 7th International Conference on Human-Animal Interactions, Geneva, September, 1995.
- Siegel, JM, 1990, ‘Stressful life events and the use of physical services among the elderly: the modifying role of pet ownership’, The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, vol. 58, pp. 1081-1086.
- Jorm, AF, Jacomb, PA, Christensen, H, Henderson, S, Korten, AE, & Rodgers, B, 1997, ‘Impact of pet ownership on elderly Australians’ use of medical services: an analysis using Medicare data’, The Medical Journal of Australia, vol. 6, no. 7, pp. 376-377.
- Headey, B, Na, F, Grabka, M, & Zheung, R, ‘Pets and human health in Australia, China and Germany: Evidence from three continents’, 2004, International Association of Human Animal Interaction Organisations Conference, Glasgow.