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Do pets really make people healthier?

Active senior couple with dog running outside in green sunny nature
Happy kitten likes being stroked by woman’s hand. The British Shorthair

By: Mary Daly From Care2

Who exactly are the people sharing their homes with animals? And how does it affect their lives? One large study aimed to explore just that. It’s been widely reported that pet scan improve our health — both mentally and physically. But it might not be that simple. Here’s what researchers have learned about the differences between pet owners and non-owners.


Researchers from the RAND Corporation and UCLA analyzed data from a California health survey of more than 42,000 adults with diverse backgrounds. They aimed to learn how pet owners and non-owners differed “across a variety of socio-demographic and health measures.”

The study broke down pet ownership into four groups: non-pet owners, dog owners, cat owners and people who had both dogs and cats. (Other types of pets were not included in the data.) Here’s what it found.

  • About 26.2 percent of the respondents had a dog, 21.5 percent had a cat and 8.5 percent had both.
  • Women were more likely than men to be either a cat or dog owner (or have both).
  • White people were much more likely to have dogs or cats compared to other races and ethnicities.
  • Pet owners were more likely to be homeowners and married.
  • Pet owners also were more likely to have full-time jobs and make more money than non-owners.

The upshot? “Overall, pet owners are more likely to be: single females or married, younger, White, live in more rural areas, live in homes, and belong to households where everyone is employed full time,” according to the study. So what about the differences in health?


The respondents were asked to rank their general health. They also reported their body mass index and whether they had asthma. Here’s what the data showed.

  • Dog and cat owners ranked their general health as slightly better than non-owners. But once the study controlled for other factors that influence health — such as income and marital status — the differences between the groups disappeared.
  • Pet owners were more likely to have asthma than non-owners, though this survey couldn’t say whether the pets caused the asthma, the people already had it or there was another factor at play.
  • Dog owners were slightly more likely to have a higher BMI.

Besides that, the study found no other remarkable differences in health between pet and non-pet owners after it controlled for socio-demographic factors. “Some of the health differences observed between pet owners and non owners could be over- or underestimated due to differences in socio-demographic variables such as age, race, gender, employment, income, and housing, and not necessarily (or solely) differences in pet ownership patterns,” the study says. For instance, because pet owners tend to have higher incomes — a factor that’s associated with better health — it might appear as though pets have a greater influence on health for those people than they actually do.

Thus, the study points out how difficult it is to determine a causal relationship between pets and health. And it suggests research that doesn’t adjust for other variables could draw erroneous conclusions.


This isn’t to say you won’t see any health benefits from having an animal in your life. As the study says, it’s hard to determine how much each variable contributes to health. So for one person, having a dog might increase their activity level and help them to lose weight. But another dog owner might keep living a sedentary lifestyle and not boost their health.

Still, research has found some promising signs of human-animal interactions, though the results are mixed. “Interacting with animals has been shown to decrease levels of cortisol (a stress-related hormone) and lower blood pressure,” according to the National Institutes of Health. “Other studies have found that animals can reduce loneliness, increase feelings of social support, and boost your mood.”

Plus, therapy animals work wonders for people with certain health conditions — though there’s not a one-size-fits-all approach to this either. For instance, the National Institute of Health cites a study in which one group of teens with diabetes was given a fish to care for, and another group was not. All of the teens also had to keep track of their blood glucose levels. The researchers found the teens with fish were better about monitoring their blood glucose, which suggested that pet ownership helped them to become more disciplined. But there could have been many other factors at play, as well.

The bottom line is having a pet is what you make of it. And our bonds with our animals are highly subjective — the strength and benefits of which likely can’t be truly measured in any study. So if you feel your life is more fulfilling with an animal, there are plenty out there who need homes.


Main image credit: People Images/Getty Images

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