Latimer: Positive effects of pets on our well being needs more study

A study published this year makes an important point about the importance of thorough scientific research.

A study published this year makes an important point about the importance of thorough scientific research to prove any kind of therapeutic product or treatment.

I have written in the past about the psychological and physical benefits of pet ownership.

Almost anyone who has a pet will tell you their furry, feathered or scaly friend provides companionship, entertainment and unconditional love. All good things that must translate into some sort of health benefit—right?

Indeed, animals have been used therapeutically for centuries and some research has suggested those who have pets are happier, healthier and live longer than those without pets.

This year, a study out of Western Carolina University and published in the August issue of Current Directions in Psychological Science, examined past data on the subject and found that more research is needed before we can be sure the ‘pet effect’ is a real thing.

Studies conducted in the past have produced conflicting results and the authors of this study have noted that the more optimistic results have received much publicity while the less positive studies have largely been ignored.

A 1980 study that found heart attack victims with a pet were four times more likely to survive for more than a year than their peers with no pets.

However, a study done just last year found pet owners were more likely to die or suffer a second heart attack within a year than those without a pet.

Other studies from all over the world also yielded conflicting results.

Some suggest the existence of a ‘pet effect’ while others show little or no evidence of one.

Although pets are a wonderful addition to many people’s lives, provide enjoyment and companionship and are undoubtedly beneficial for some people, there is simply not enough evidence to make the claim that there is an overall health benefit to be derived simply from having a pet.

Conflicting data in any area of science can only be cleared up with further, properly controlled studies.

It is important that we not simply believe something to be established in fact before there is sufficient evidence.

Meantime, whether or not there is a general health benefit to be gained, there is no reason for therapy animal programs to stop their work wherever it is welcomed and those of us who are pet owners can continue to enjoy our animal friends.

Paul Latimer is a psychiatrist and president of Okanagan Clinical Trials.


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