The Study of Human-Animal Interactions Benefits We Derive from Companion Animals Health Benefits from Companion Animals
Health Benefits from Companion Animals
October 1997
Dr.Ian Robinson
Waltham Centre for Pet Nutrition

Although there are some historical references for therapeutic roles for animals, the current interest in this area stems largely from the work of Boris Levinson, an American child psychologist. Levinson noted an accidental meeting between his dog and an emotionally disturbed child who would not interact with him directly but did interact with the dog. Further interactions between child and dog were the key to the eventual rehabilitation of the child, and Levinson continued successfully to use pets as part of his therapy, challenging others to explore the role of animals as part of the therapeutic process.

Physiological Effects

Some early studies in this area considered the possible physiological impact of companion animals on their owners. A study of people who had had a heart attack showed that pet owners were more likely to be alive 1 year after release from hospital than were non-owners. An index of heart disease severity showed no correlation between lower initial severity of attack and pet ownership. It appeared therefore that pets enhanced the recovery of their owners, in a manner which was independent of the severity of the original heart attack.

Following this work many people looked for the mechanism behind this beneficial effect, and studies focussed on the impact of interacting with a pet on human response to stress. To date. a number of studies have shown that both the presence of pets and interactions with pets can have significant short-term influences on physiological and psychological indicators of stress such as high blood pressure of feelings of anxiety.

More recently, a study of nearly 6,000 people at the Baker Medical Institute in Melbourne, Australia, has shown that pet owners had significantly reduced levels of known risk factors associated with cardiovascular disease. Male pet owners had significantly lower systolic blood pressure than non-owners, and a significant effect was noted in females aged 40 years and over. Male pet owners also had significantly lower plasma cholesterol and triglyceride levels than non-owners. A comparison of aspects of lifestyle which may influence risk factors was made to determine if this was responsible for the difference between owners and non-owners, but no clear factor which may have explained the data was identified. The mechanism behind this effect remains to be identified.

Psychological Effects

Although studies may show that pet owners are more healthy or less stressed than non-owners, it could be argued that this effect occurs because it is only healthy people who are able own pets. This hypothesis was addressed to some extent in a study conducted in Cambridge, UK., where the impact of pet ownership on human health and well-being was investigated by monitoring the change in behaviour and health status of 71 adults over a 10 month period, following the acquisition of a new cat or dog. These subjects were compared with a group of non-pet owners over the same period.

Pet owners showed significant improvements in psychological well-being over the first 6 months, and in dog owners this benefit was maintained for the full period of study. Dog owners also increased their feeling of self-esteem, were less anxious about becoming victims of crime, and took more exercise by walking their dog. Both dog and cat owners reported a reduction in minor health problems in the first month after acquiring a pet and this effect was sustained in dog owners until the end of the trial. This study demonstrates a positive effect of pet ownership on human health which can be long lasting in some cases. Thus, by showing an improvement in the health status of individuals after the acquisition of a new cat or dog, a cause and effect relationship between pets and health was identified.

Benefits and Responsibilities

Largely as a result of the studies discussed above and other similar work, attitudes to companion animals have changed. In many countries it is now possible to see resident or visiting animals in hospitals or hospices for elderly or terminally ill people. There is also increasing interest in the use of dogs trained to assist disabled people. Although these therapeutic roles for companion animals are increasing, the greatest reason for pet ownership is companionship. To maximise the benefit from these companions it is important that owners select an animal appropriate to their lifestyle and recognise their responsibilities. Indeed, there are suggestions that the benefits of pet ownership derive from the overall package of owning and properly caring for the animal, rather than just its presence. Thus, pet ownership should be seen as a marriage of the benefits that we derive from pets and the benefits that the pet derives from our responsible ownership.