Pet Ownership and Physical Health

Robert L. Matchock


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

In This Article


More research is needed on what types of pets are most effective and with what type of health issues or clinical outcomes. Most research on pet therapy/ownership has focused on dogs, and to a lesser extent, cats. Essentially all of the laboratory research has been with dogs. Little is known about the beneficial effects of other pets including exotics (e.g., snakes and lizards) and even robotic animals (e.g., robotic seals).[63,64] A single-group pretest and posttest design[63] found that participants in a residential care facility had better communication and social skills and more activity participation after interacting with Paro, a robotic seal,[63] whereas a better-controlled randomized controlled trial found significant decreases in loneliness with Paro.[64] Not all individuals may be good candidates for dog or cat ownership due to health or financial circumstances. Nonanimate or low-maintenance pets may serve a useful role for many of these individuals. Indeed, one recent study[65] found that the addition of a large aquarium with colorful fish improved symptoms of dementia (i.e., uncooperative, irrational, sleep, inappropriate, and dangerous behaviors) and job satisfaction among the staff, albeit with a single-group pretest/posttest design. More research is also needed on the demographic variables associated with owning different types of pets, as done by Westgarth et al.[66] so as to better control for these potentially confounding variables in large epidemiological studies, as well as how personality factors of pet owners interact with the owner–pet bond.[67]

Although the collective evidence of nonexperimental studies carries explanatory weight, more original empirical research studies that employ randomized control group designs are still needed to determine if pet ownership and AAT can be used as a viable nonpharmacological intervention. It is plausible that some studies overestimate the magnitude of the pet effect because of a biased group of participants. That is, participants who do not like pets or have pet phobias or allergies, simply do not volunteer for research studies involving pets. It is likely that we are observing the best candidates for AAT, and that AAT and pet ownership may not be so effective for a substantial portion of the population.

More research is also needed on the grief and bereavement process that pet owners experience in response to the loss of their pets. Depression,[68] stress,[69] and in some cases psychiatric hospitalization[70] may occur after pet loss, especially in pet owners who are especially attached to their pets.[71] Indeed, it has recently been suggested that dog owners go through five stages of grieving around the time of euthanization.[72] Given the relatively short longevity of most pets compared with humans, health benefits associated with pet ownership need to be balanced carefully against the grieving associated with the inevitable loss of a pet. Driving a motor vehicle with a pet inside can also increase the risk of a collision, at least with older drivers who frequently travel with a pet.[73] Other risks associated with pet ownership or AAT include zoonotic infections,[74] although risks to patients appear to be low,[75] and asthma, although pet ownership has been associated with a reduced risk of sensitivity to aeroallergens, both in a recent original study[76] and a meta-analysis.[77] Despite these caveats, the future for HAI research and therapeutic applications of HAI appears promising.