Living with a pet reduces the likelihood of suffering from health problems, which is evident in the fact that pet owners require fewer visits to the hospital on average. Studies conducted in Germany and Australia found that those with companion animals visited the hospital 15% less often than people without pets. In China, pet owners saw even greater benefits, with 20% fewer hospital visits (Sydney Morning Herald, 16 February 2006).
Research has identified a number of specific health benefits associated with cat ownership, including reduced risk of developing asthma, enhanced immune function, improved mental health, and reduced risk of heart attack and stroke.
Reduced Risk of Developing Asthma
Researchers at the Columbia Center for Children’s Environmental Health have discovered that children are less likely to develop asthma if there is a cat in the home because children who grow up with cats are more likely to develop allergy-related antibodies (Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health, 20 May 2008).
Enhanced Immune Function
Dr. June McNicholas, University of Warwick (UK), found that children living with pets were 13% to 18% less likely to miss school due to illness than children without pets. Also, the salivary immunologobulin levels of young pet owners indicated that their immune function was less likely to be weak (Anthrozoology.org, 2006).
Improved Mental Health
Pet ownership has been shown to boost levels of mood-regulating neurotransmitters such as dopamine and serotonin. This means that pets can reduce feelings of anxiety, depression, and other negative states not only by offering companionship, but also by triggering actual physiological effects in the brain (Johns Hopkins Medicine, 25 July 2007).
Reduced Risk of Heart Attack and Stroke
A 10-year study of 4,435 people aged 30-75 in the United States has found that owning a cat may reduce the risk of heart attack and stroke by 30%. The study, conducted by Qureshi et al., followed two populations: cat owners and those who had never owned a cat. At the end of the 10 years, researchers found that cat owners had a significantly reduced risk of dying from heart attacks and strokes compared to those without cats.
How do pets provide these health benefits? The link between stress and illness, particularly cardiovascular disease, has been well-established. Pets tend to have a calming effect (studies have shown that stroking an animal can reduce blood pressure and heart rate).
ARUP Laboratories veterinary pathologist Lawrence McGill has speculated that cats may have an edge over dogs when it comes to health benefits for owners because they provide extra stress relief when they sit on people’s laps or next to them, offering continuous petting opportunities. He also suggests that because dogs are more labour-intensive to maintain, the stress associated with their care may mitigate the stress-relief they provide to some degree. However, Qureshi believes that dogs probably provide similar benefits, noting that there hadn’t been enough dog owners in the study to include them in the statistics.
Of course not everyone agrees that there is a direct causal link between cat ownership and reduced risk of dying from heart attacks. Critics have pointed out that cat owners may have personality factors or make lifestyle choices that have protective effects against disease. For example, cat lovers may cope with stress better, exercise more, or eat healthier food.
The health benefits that cats and dogs can offer have become widely recognized in recent years. As a result, many pets are being put into service as therapy animals, helping to improve the psychological and physical health of children, the elderly, and those who suffer from medical problems. This growing field is proving to have many potential applications.
For more cat articles, see the main Cats page.
- Anthrozoology.org. (2006). “Pet Ownership and Children’s Immune Function.”
- CBC News. (22 February 2008). “Something to Purr About: Cats Reduce Heart Attack Risk.” CBC.ca.
- Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health (2008, May 20). “Early Life Exposure To Cats May Reduce Risk Of Childhood Allergies And Asthma Symptoms.” ScienceDaily.com.
- Johns Hopkins Medicine. (25 July 2007). “The Many Benefits of Pets.” Johns Hopkins Medicine, JohnHopkinsHealthAlerts.com.
- Paddock, C. (25 February 2008). “Cat Owners Have Lower Heart Attack Risk, Study.” Medical News Today.
- Sydney Morning Herald. (16 February 2006). “Doctors See Fewer Pet Owners.” SMH.com.au.