Pet Ownership and Physical Health

Robert L. Matchock

Disclosures

Curr Opin Psychiatry. 2015;28(5):386-392. 

In This Article

Abstract and Introduction

Abstract

Purpose of review Pet ownership and brief human–animal interactions can serve as a form of social support and convey a host of beneficial psychological and physiological health benefits. This article critically examines recent relevant literature on the pet–health connection.

Recent findings Cross-sectional studies indicate correlations between pet ownership and numerous aspects of positive health outcomes, including improvements on cardiovascular measures and decreases in loneliness. Quasi-experimental studies and better controlled experimental studies corroborate these associations and suggest that owning and/or interacting with a pet may be causally related to some positive health outcomes.

Summary The value of pet ownership and animal-assisted therapy (AAT), as a nonpharmacological treatment modality, augmentation to traditional treatment, and healthy preventive behavior (in the case of pet ownership), is starting to be realized. However, more investigations that employ randomized controlled trials with larger sample sizes and investigations that more closely examine the underlying mechanism of the pet–health effect, such as oxytocin, are needed.

Introduction

It has been estimated that over 60% of American households[1] and approximately 50% of people from all developed countries[2] own at least one pet. Increasingly, the benefits associated with pet ownership, brief exposures to pets in various types of clinical and laboratory settings, and as an augmentation to traditional therapy, are starting to be realized. Human–animal interactions (HAI), or anthrozoology, can take the form of simple pet ownership or briefer interactions with animals including animal-assisted activities (AAA) where pets more casually interact with people with no specific therapeutic goals, or animal-assisted therapy (AAT) which involves trained animals and therapists with specific therapeutic goals.[3] Despite the increasing acceptance of AAT in a wide variety of settings and its putative efficacy based on anecdotal reports, systematic research support for its effectiveness has not been as strong. Studies are often limited by small sample sizes, correlational designs, lack of randomization, and participants and evaluators not being blind to interventions. The first meta-analysis of AAT identified moderate effect sizes for autism-spectrum symptoms, medical difficulties, behavioral problems, and emotional well being.[4] The first systematic article of AAT-randomized controlled trials published prior to 2012 suggested that ATT may be effective in the treatment of cancer and other terminal illnesses by improving mental states, diseases of impaired circulation, autism spectrum symptoms, and self-reported outcomes for patients with varied clinical conditions.[5] Also see Beetz et al.[6] and Cherniack and Cherniack[7] for excellent reviews of pet ownership and health. The purpose of the current article is to provide a critical review of relevant papers published approximately within the last 2 years in order to provide up-to-date information about pet ownership, including brief interactions with nonfamiliar pets, and physical and mental health. Studies are organized according to type of research design.

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