Editor's note: This story was updated on June 14, 2018.
Bringing shock and disappointment to dog and cat lovers alike, researchers are challenging the "sort of implicit consensus" that having a pet benefits human health, James Hamblin reports for The Atlantic.
Aren't pets good for your health?
According to Hamblin, "pro-pet research findings ... have been piling up since the 1980s." For instance, research has found pet owners had less heart disease and higher heart attack survival rates. And among children, research has shown the risk of asthma and allergic rhinitis was lower for those who'd been exposed to pet allergens during infancy.
Further, Hamblin writes, "It seemed that these correlations weren't coincidental." He cites a 2005 literature review that stated it is likely "pet ownership itself is the primary cause of the reported benefits," since "no studies have found significant social or economic differences between people who do or do not have pets that would adequately explain (these) differences in health."
Challenging the consensus
But a study published by RAND earlier this month seems to have done "exactly that," Hamblin writes. The researchers found that while pet owners appeared healthier than people without pets, the differences could be explained by other factors—largely those related to socioeconomic status.
For the study, researchers reviewed children's health data collected in 2003 from over 5,000 households in California, comparing those with and without cats or dogs. According to RAND, the study is the "largest-ever" to explore the relationship between pet ownership and children's health.
At first glance, the researchers found that children in households with pets typically had "better general health"; were less likely to have parents concerned about their mood, behavior, or learning abilities; were more likely to exercise; and were more likely to be described as "obedient." These findings, Hamblin writes, are "entirely consistent with what would be expected."
But when the researchers controlled for confounding factors—those associated both with the likelihood of owning a pet and the likelihood of good health outcomes—they found "no evidence for a beneficial effect of pet ownership for child health." According to Hamblin, the researchers found that "pet ownership is more of a signifier of the sort of life that leads to better health, not the driver of that better health."
That said, Hamblin writes that the study "had a serious limitation" in that it only looked at people at a single point in time. A more complete understanding of the relationship between pet ownership and health would come from a longitudinal study that tracks kids over time to see how their health develops, Hamblin reports.
Layla Parast—a RAND statistician who worked on the study—said, "We're not completely ruling out that pet ownership leads to good health." She added, "We're just saying you need to step back and see that people who own pets are different from people who don't in a whole lot of ways."
Parast said, "It would be great to have a reason to hand out cuddly puppies to everyone who needs better health. I would be completely in favor of that. But there's no scientific evidence right now that shows that" (Hamblin, The Atlantic, 8/10).
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