Pets and our health: why we should take them more seriously

Pets are a powerful positive influence in many people’s lives. No doubt many people reading this article are part of the estimated 5 million of 7.5 million Australian households with a pet.

Although the evidence body is small, pets have been shown to have positive effects for physical health for some time. A new study found children with a pet dog were less likely to suffer from anxiety than those without. In the early 1990s researchers showed that pet owners had significantly lower levels of risk factors for cardiovascular disease like blood pressure.

Research has also found general health improves after getting a pet and is maintained in the long term, in comparison with a matched control group without pets. However, we are still not encouraging and funding research into how health systems, services and public policy can tap into this resource, especially in mental health.

Getting this topic taken seriously in academia is also difficult. It is seen as frivolous and light-hearted, and not part of legitimate health sciences. Consequently, there is only a piecemeal body of academic literature on the role of pets in mental health.

Across various fields such as criminology and psychology, we can find ad hoc pieces of research linking human mental health to human-animal relationships with positive benefits.

The lack of a coherent body of evidence means it is difficult to show that pets are important in any one population group or field, even after piecing the existing research together. Few health science fields consider there is enough evidence to support publishing new papers, often on the grounds that “evidence is lacking”.

We also found animal fields were reluctant to publish articles that suggested animals could be a resource for human wellness. This was seen as devaluing animals.

This conundrum of responses results in a lack of published research, leading to a perception that it is unimportant. This perception shapes the views of funding bodies, so researchers have difficulty in obtaining funding. In turn, there is a dearth of research and a fragmented undeveloped field of understanding.

Are pets good for us?

Scanning the fragmented body of literature that does exist suggests that pets are highly significant in the mental wellbeing of many people. The field of domestic violence is the most advanced in considering the role of pets in health and wellbeing.

Some women will stay in a violent relationship because of threats to their pets by an abuser. If services assisting women to escape domestic violence don’t allow pets, they will stay with the pet. Some services have been implementing pet-friendly approaches in response to this evidence. This level of attachment between women and their pets suggests that pets may also act as a coping or support mechanism, whether they stay or leave.

Young homeless people have reported pets as providing unconditional love, reducing loneliness and improving quality of life and wellbeing.

Pets may provide helpful structure in the lives of people experiencing mental illness: addressing a pet’s needs provides a reason for depressed pet owners to get up in the morning.

Pets also add to older people’s quality of life by providing social support and companionship and reducing loneliness, fear and social isolation.

Some of the most recent research in this area is returning to old data and discovering that pets have been overlooked and even removed from older people’s stories of what adds to their quality of life.

Recent yet-to-be-published research undertaken with colleagues found some older people are giving up pets early on in their ageing because they are afraid of not being able to take them into care, or because they are concerned for their pet if something happens to them.

Not taking pets seriously in how we consider and support ageing means we may be condemning some older people to isolation and loneliness. We should develop ways to support older pet owners and ensure pets do not have to be relinquished when people go into full-time care. At present this process is ad hoc and informal.

Just because people want their pets with them does not necessarily mean that pets help with health outcomes and wellbeing. But the evidence that does exist shows that they do help. For example, PET (positron emission tomography) scans show that pets reduce stress, and most cancer patients with pets claimed their pets helped them during their treatment.

By not treating pets as a serious part of human wellbeing, we are overlooking a powerful health-promoting resource. Exploring and supporting the role of pets in human lives and health may be far cheaper, with fewer side effects and greater unanticipated positives than the continual search for new drugs and technological solutions to human wellness.