Do pets make people happier or healthier? Do they enrich their lives and provide comfort? Well, according to research done by Howard Herzog, Professor of Psychology at the Western Carolina University, maybe not. Or, at least according to him, the jury’s still out on this one.
No doubt, pet owners will howl in protest.
In his article to be published this month in Current Directions of Psychological Science, a journal of the Association of Psychological Science, he argues that results of existing research on pet ownership are misleading. Some studies may suggest that pets contribute to positive health and help alleviate depression or lower blood pressure while other studies are inconclusive, suggesting pet owners might be worse off.
But Herzog is quick to point out that these studies suffer from methodological problems such as small samples, lack of appropriate control groups, and reliance on self-reporting on health and well-being, which can be less than accurate.
“I’m not trying to denigrate the role of animals in human life,” said Herzog. “I’m trying to do just the opposite. It’s entirely plausible that our pets really do provide medical and psychological benefits but we just don’t know how strong that effect is, what types of people it works for, and what the underlying biological and psychological mechanisms might be.”
He might have felt a bit more reassured had he glanced at a Harris/Decima poll done last winter for Purina on the value Canadians place on their pets. The poll showed that 53 per cent of Canadians who own pets find them more reliable than people. They trust their pets as playmates, protectors, helpers, guides, confidantes, companions, athletic co-trainers and therapists. Dogs are considered undisputed members of a family with Atlantic Canadians leading that belief (94 per cent) and British Columbian pet owners not far behind at 91 per cent. For seniors, 82 per cent feel less alone when they have a pet at home and 86 per cent of people polled believe pets can ease a bad mood.
To be fair to Herzog, who is an animal lover and pet owner, he recognizes the importance of animals in human life as well as research on human-animal relationships. “It offers a window into really big issues in human psychology.”
He added that this kind of research could shed light on many cultural and ethical practices not to mention their therapeutic values. Around the world, many thousands of people benefit from service animals such as guide dogs for the blind, miniature horses that provide comfort to the seriously ill and dying, and specially trained dogs that provide support, affection and companionship to Canadian soldiers suffering from the debilitating symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.
Pets are often a catalyst for human interaction. A walk in the park with the dog can often trigger pleasant conversation with others sharing stories about their own animals. Pets can alert their owners to danger in the home and sense when things aren’t right such as a physical illness or a shift in emotions.
“Let’s say it turns out that some kids with autism benefit from interacting with animals,” Herzog suggested. “Wouldn’t it be great to be able to know which kids are going to benefit and which aren’t?”
He emphasized that much more rigorous research is needed, noting that the scientific community is starting to take these issues seriously. In 2008 the National Institutes of Health began to fund studies that examine the medical and psychological benefits of pets on children. He said he was encouraged that scientists in psychology are really becoming involved in this research.
“I think in five years we’re going to have some answers to our questions,” he said.