Can Cats Make Us Healthier?

Last week we talked about how stress makes cats sick, and how we — inadvertently, I hope — are often responsible for that stress and can therefore relieve it and make our cats healthier. I then started to wonder if our pets have the ability to return the favor and make us healthier and happier.

First, I think we have to admit that living with pets isn’t all positive. They are expensive, sometimes inconvenient, and people can become ill and even die because of diseases transmitted to them through contact with animals.

These so-called zoonotic diseases are more common than you might think. I’ve had to deal with several during my veterinary career: a puppy with rabies that exposed its owners and a couple of folks in the clinic; a cat with plague that did the same; canine mange mites causing human scabies; pregnant women worried about contracting toxoplasmosis; and the potential of roundworms to cause blindness in children, to name just a few.

These are real concerns, but thankfully, most zoonotic diseases can be prevented by following standard vaccine, parasite prevention and lifestyle recommendations, and by practicing good personal hygiene.

So, if we accept that we can ward off most illnesses that are transmitted from pets to people, let’s now examine the evidence that having animals in our lives can actually make us healthier. I’ve seen studies showing that children raised in households with furry creatures have a lower likelihood of developing asthma, that petting an animal reduces a person’s blood pressure, and that dog owners get more exercise than people who don’t have dogs and are more likely to survive a heart attack if one does occur.

But, I have to be honest and say that I’ve also run across a number of studies that show no positive effect of pet ownership on a person’s health or longevity. I think — scientifically speaking, at least — the jury is still out on this one.

So if we can’t definitively say that pets make us healthier, can we at least say that we’re happier for having them in our lives? A survey performed by the Pew Research Center in 2006 actually showed very little difference in the percentage of people with or without pets (dogs and/or cats) reporting that they were "very happy." I do wonder, however, whether there would be a difference in other categories of emotional well-being. Perhaps pet owners are less unhappy than non-pet owners.

I think the real question here is not whether pets can make us healthier or happier, but whether for some of us at least, they are essential to living a full life, complete with both the inevitable high and low moments.

Animals have been responsible for some of the saddest moments of my life, and yes, I’ve suffered avoidable injuries, if not illnesses, from spending so much time with them. But would I give up these painful memories if it meant that I also had to forget all the joyful times I’ve spent with them? Not on your life!

Dr. Jennifer Coates

Image: Esin Deniz / Shutterstock

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