Many of us adore our pets and can’t imagine life without them. They’re even thought to possess a range of healing powers from reducing stress and lowering blood pressure to warding off depression. But as much as we love them, do pets really offer health benefits?
It seems the answer is yes – and no. While we regularly see headlines trumpeting the latest study showing that pets make you happier, healthier or live longer, psychologist Dr Helen Winefield says it is actually a grey area.
“It can be very good for people to feel that there's another creature who thinks the world of them, and who depends on them and needs them,” says the Adelaide University professor. “But taking on an animal is a responsibility, and while that can be quite stimulating and give people a real sense of purpose, we can’t automatically assume that it's going to have magical benefits for everyone.”
Dr Winefield’s review of the existing research linking pet ownership to health (co-authored by Dr Anna Chur-Hansen) finds the results are “inconclusive”. While there are many studies to back the hypothesis that pets are good for your health, there are just as many that show no effect at all, or in fact adverse effects.
The problem is that very few studies use a randomised, controlled design – considered the “gold standard” in the medical world – because there are ethical and logistical issues with giving or denying someone a pet in the name of research. As a result, although pet owners may feel strongly that their pet adds tremendously to their wellbeing – for example, the comfort you get from stroking a purring cat, or the exercise you get from walking a dog – the evidence simply isn’t there to say those benefits apply across the board.
“I'm quite happy to believe that some pets are useful for some people,” says Dr Winefield. “There's quite a lot of literature that shows having someone who thinks you're wonderful and doesn't make any critical remarks and is always happy to see you, is good for your mental wellbeing. There are certainly accounts of people being encouraged to go on with their lives because they know that there's a pet dependent on them."
“On the other hand, there's a whole lot of stuff in the medical literature about the health dangers of owning a pet. You could catch some illness from it, you could fall over it and break your leg, or it could bite you – a number of things could go wrong.”
So should you get a pet or not? If you love animals and are prepared to take on the responsibility, you may well find that the benefits of owning a pet outweigh the potential drawbacks. But it’s important to be aware that owning a pet isn’t for everyone and can bring its own stresses.
Dr Winefield urges people to think it through carefully before deciding one way or the other. “Getting a pet isn't as simple as some people think it's going to be. There are costs in time and emotional energy, as well as in vet bills, food and care. People need to be aware that it’s a real responsibility and the psychological bond that could develop, like any other bond in this world, doesn't come for free.”