Fido’s No Doctor, Neither is Whiskers by Hal Herzog (NY Times article; requires free registration)
Earlier this month, I read with some interest this article that indicates that dogs may not relieve stress in their owners. The article refers to several studies in reputable journals that indicate that pet owners have the same (or higher) levels of stress as non-pet owners. Is this true? Have we been deluding ourselves that chasing after our inadvertently-freed Shibas and spending hours debating one kibble over another over feeding raw is helping us on our road to low-stress living?
Upon closer examination, I’m not entirely convinced that Herzog isn’t just picking and choosing the information that he is using to back up his arguments. For instance, some of the studies did, in fact, mention that dog ownership was linked to health benefits that would contribute to stress relief, such as exercise.
Herzog claims that the Dutch study doesn’t show physical or emotional effects from owning a pet; however, the abstract states “Having a dog increased the likelihood of being healthy active, whereas having a cat showed the opposite.”
The Finnish study, that “reported that pet owners were more likely than non-pet owners to suffer from sciatica, kidney disease, arthritis, migraines, panic attacks, high blood pressure and depression” also stated:
Pets seem to be part of the lives of older people who have settled down and experience an increase in the number of illnesses, whereas young healthy single people have no time, need, or possibility for a pet. Associations of pet ownership with disease indicators were largely explained with socio-demographic factors; characteristics were those that bring forward the background of poor health in epidemiological investigations: male gender, low level of education, life without a couple relationship, and poor social standing.
The chronic fatigue study that Herzog found to show that pet owners were “just as tired, stressed, worried and unhappy as sufferers in a control group who had no pets” also stated:
Although animals should not be regarded as a panacea for people with long-term conditions such as CFS, they may, nonetheless, serve a valuable, and currently underutilized, role in promoting well-being, whether in their own right, or in conjunction with more traditional forms of therapy.
Herzog’s ultimate message in this article appears benevolent: pets, while important for many people, should not be viewed as a panacea in and of themselves. Pet therapies, support and emotional assistance, while valuable to a specific subset of individuals, should not be viewed as a universal treatment for emotional and mental illness or distress.
I think that the message in this article is bogged down by the fact that a large percentage of the studies referred to seem to provide a counterbalance to the position that pets do little or nothing to improve people’s health.
One challenge faced by people trying to determine if pets affect people’s health positively or negatively is the varied home environments and attitudes of the people who choose to keep pets. As the Finnish study noted, pet ownership may just be another indicator of a certain time of life and lifestyle that could explain any health problems more accurately than “dogs cause depression”.
Of course, having been on the receiving end of a librarian who refused to believe that my Shiba really did, deliberately and with malicious forethought, chew up the dog training book that I had borrowed, I am in full sympathy with anyone who claims that dogs can, indeed, negatively impact the mental health of their owners.
I doubt any of these studies have the ability to control all other stress factors to isolate the effect of the dog. It seems like they’re just restating the obvious in many different ways.