I admit it: My 4-pound toy poodle, Sage, wears sweaters and T-shirts. Riding in a shoulder bag designed for little dogs like him, he has grown used to accompanying me everywhere: to family cookouts, the supermarket, the post office, even to the mall. I like having him around. As a medical reporter, I'm a bit skeptical when I see reports like the one last month that showed that owning a cat lowers your risk of heart attack. But as Sage's doting owner, I find the growing body of research into the health benefits of having a pet intriguing, to say the least.
Given that people do gain healthwise from having a strong social network, it makes sense that having an animal companion would also do some good, says Alan Beck, a professor and director of the Center for the Human-Animal Bond at the Purdue University School of Veterinary Medicine. "Do animals cure everything? Of course not," Beck says. But people relate to animals by nurturing, caring for, and talking to them—much as they do with other humans, so "it's not surprising that people who have relationships with animals actually report benefits," he says.
Research has linked pet ownership to reduced stress and lower blood pressure, for example. And the cat study presented at the American Stroke Association conference in February was based on data from the Second National Health and Nutrition Examination Study, a large assessment of cardiovascular risk factors with 10 years of follow-up. About 55 percent of the 4,435 study participants reported past or present cat ownership; researchers found they had 30 percent reduction in risk of heart attack compared with non-cat people,"even after adjusting for classic cardiovascular risk factors such as blood pressure, diabetes mellitus, cigarette smoking, and high cholesterol," says study author Adnan I. Qureshi, professor of neurology, neurosurgery, and radiology at the University of Minnesota.
Another new study, published in March in the Journal of the American Medical Directors Association, found that nursing home residents are helped by pet visits even when the pet is fake. Researchers analyzed how effectively a living, 40-pound, mixed-breed dog eased residents' loneliness compared with a robotic dog during weekly 30-minute visits over eight weeks. The groups who received visits from the real and robotic dogs both reported being less lonely (and about equally so) than residents who didn't get pet visits. "We realized [that] the animal-human bond is very important," says study author William A. Banks, a professor of geriatric medicine at St. Louis University. And the findings suggest that "re-establishing that [bond] can decrease loneliness."
Not all research findings on pets are positive. A 2006 study in the journal PloS ONE found that Finnish pet owners tend to be more overweight than those who don't own pets. "Pet owners had a slightly higher BMI [body mass index] than the rest," the study reports, "which indicates that people having a pet (particularly a dog) could use some exercise." But, the authors speculated, it could be that pet owners in the study tended to be older and less educated.
And the jury is still out on whether pets protect or harm those at risk for developing allergies and asthma. A 2001 review found that pet exposure seems to up the risk of wheezing and asthma in older children, but there was a lower—and perhaps protective—effect of owning a pet observed in younger children. A 2004 study found that asthma, skin allergy, and rhinitis were more common in families with pets than in those without.
When I think of my own family and our extensive pet-owning history, I wonder if there's some merit to the latter studies. My younger brothers and older sister all have asthma and mild allergies. And I'm asthmatic and extremely allergic to cats, mold, trees, grasses, dust—and, even mildly, to dogs. Although poodles, luckily, seem to only make me feel good.