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Are pets REALLY good for our health?

Thursday March 31st, 2011

by Michael Mountain
Founder, Best Friends Animal Society and The Stubby Dog Project

Zoe columnist Hal Herzog has a fascinating Op-Ed column in the New York Times today. It’s called Fido’s No Doctor. Neither Is Whiskers.

Hal is always questioning conventional wisdom, and this time he’s been checking out the claim that cats and dogs are beneficial to your health. He writes:

Research has shown that stroking an animal lowers blood pressure, that AIDS patients living with pets are less depressed, and that pet owners have lower cholesterol levels, sleep more soundly, exercise more and take fewer sick days than non-pet owners. Indeed, I have a stack of articles in my office supporting the hypothesis that pets are healthy for us.

Unfortunately, however, I also have another stack of articles, almost as high, showing that pets have either no long-term effects or have even adverse effects on physical and mental health.

Hal has combed through dozens of surveys. One of them shows that people with pets don’t live any longer than anyone else, while another concludes that companion animals have no effect on your physical or mental well-being.

A clinical trial of cancer patients found that “interacting with therapy pets did no more to enhance the participants’ morale than reading a book did.”

And to add possible insult to injury, we learn from a study in Finland that people with pets were, in fact, more likely than other people to suffer from a host of illnesses from kidney disease to migraines to depression. (And yes, Finland is a very pet-friendly country!)

So much, then, for my favorite advice to people who are feeling a bit under the weather: “Take two dogs and call me in the morning.”

Max_300_hal_herzog_s_black_cat_tilly
Hal Herzog's cat Tilly.

Hal is a professor of psychology with a delightful cat called Tilly (that’s her on the right), who, I’m sure Hal will agree, is just what the doctor ordered for whatever may ail him from day to day! Regardless, though, Hal’s research is meticulous. His column has been published all over the country, and he’s getting lots of flak for it. Pet lovers are hammering him in their comments (one of them just called him an SOB!), but that’s a classic case of shooting the messenger! Hal isn’t stating an opinion; he’s simply reporting on what the surveys and the evidence show, which is what makes the whole topic so interesting.

Pet therapy

I won’t question the facts or what people said in the surveys Hal studied. But anyone who’s watched faces light up in children’s hospitals, retirement homes and hospices knows that it’s not just about the medical evidence.

As an example, psychotherapist Ruby Benjamin notes that she often has a dog in the office when working with a patient. In one of her Zoe columns, she describes how a dog called Teddy Bear helped a patient tap into her repressed emotions:

After a few minutes, Susan picked up Teddy Bear, placed him on her lap, and stroked him gently. “I wish someone would do this to me,” she said quietly. It was a poignant moment as we sat in silence and let the weight of that confession hang in the air. Teddy Bear had the key to the strongbox of feelings long locked away. In the safety of the therapy room, Susan was able to release those feelings and verbalize them. It was a breakthrough moment.

Animals have a way of triggering the deep imprisoned emotions of love, kindness, trust, value and playfulness. They have no pretense. When they love you, they tell you; when they don’t, you know that, too.

And while dogs and cats may not have a cure for cancer, “pet therapy” is harmless, free and a great pleasure and comfort, especially for the young and the old.

In well managed programs, it’s good for the dogs, too. Many of them have been rescued from abuse and have gone on to become qualified “therapy dogs” who love their new job.

. . . or pop science?

On the other hand, there’s one thing that Hal exposes that’s really important for people to know. He writes:

As for the presumed curative powers of swimming with dolphins, researchers at Emory University who reviewed the dolphin therapy studies concluded that every one purporting to document positive health effects was methodologically flawed.

These expensive scams prey upon parents who are desperately seeking help for their children. But any apparent short-term benefit (the child seemed happier and more alert) can quickly be put down to the natural consequence of a trip to the seaside and the attention that’s lavished on the child. And sometimes these programs are actively harmful to children.

The harm to the dolphins should not be overlooked, either. These intelligent, social creatures, whose natural home is the open ocean, are forced to live in swimming pools and ponds where, in exchange for food, they must serve the interests of their captors. There’s no therapy in dolphin swim programs. It’s just another form of snake-oil.

Farewell to logic

Hal is the author of the best-seller Some We Love, Some We Hate, Some We Eat: Why It’s So Hard To Think Straight About Animals. It’s a fascinating and fun read about all the anomalies and illogicalities in our relationships to animals, full of interesting anecdotes, and never professorial or heavy-handed.

It includes a conversation with me, which we had, late one night, at the bar of a hotel at an animal conference. I was explaining my pseudo-philosophy about how I relate to horseflies who hang out around the house in summer – a philosophy that, like so many other ways we relate to our fellow animals, is entirely illogical. But it works for me … sort of.

When it comes to the animals, we all have our crazy, and often quite anomalous, beliefs. But Fido and Fluffy don’t care. I guess they prefer us that way!

This article first appeared here on zoenature.org.



Michael Mountain is one of the founders of Best Friends Animal Society, the nation’s largest animal sanctuary and one of the pioneers of the no-kill movement for homeless pets. As president of Best Friends and editor of Best Friends magazine, he helped to build grassroots adoption and spay/neuter programs all over the country before stepping down in 2008. He currently is the editor and co-founder of Zoe-- a new online magazine for people who care about animals, nature and the environment -- and the co-founder of StubbyDog, which is working to change public perceptions of pit bulls.



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