By Dr. Becker
It’s long been known that owning a pet may offer benefits to your health. Much of these benefits have been attributed to the increased physical activity that dog owners, in particular, get while walking their dogs.
In 2012, for instance, a study in the Scandinavian Journal of Public Health found that dog owners had several health advantages compared to non-pet or cat owners.
The cat owners, meanwhile, had a higher body mass index (BMI), higher blood pressure and worse general health status than the non-pet owners or dog owners. They also tended to exercise less than the others.1 A new study, however, may vindicate cat owners.
Women Who Own Cats Have a Lower Risk of Stroke
In a study of nearly 4,000 adults aged 50 and older, who were generally healthy, owning a pet was associated with a lower risk of dying from cardiovascular events like a stroke — but only for women.2
Women who owned pets were 40 percent less likely to have died of stroke, and while dogs were the most common pet, it was cat owners who enjoyed most of this stroke risk reduction. This suggests increased physical activity was not the reason for the health benefits. The scientists concluded:3
“Owning a cat rather than a dog was significantly associated with a reduced hazard of dying from CVD [cardiovascular disease] events, in particular, stroke.
The protection pets confer may not be from physical activities, but possibly due to personality of the pet owners or stress-relieving effects of animal companionship.”
Do Dog Owners and Cat Owners Have Different Personalities?
There are, for the record, noted differences between “dog people” and “cat people.” Research presented at an annual Association for Psychological Science (APS) meeting showed distinct personality differences between the two.
In particular, dog lovers were more lively, energetic and outgoing, and tended to follow rules. Cat lovers were more introverted, open-minded and sensitive, and tended to be non-conformist rather than follow the rules. The study also found that cat lovers scored higher on intelligence.
A study at the University of Texas also found that dog people are more extroverted, agreeable and conscientious while cat people are less traditional, more creative and more neurotic.4
There are certainly many exceptions to these “rules,” and it’s unclear exactly how these personality traits may confer health advantages or disadvantages — or where people who love both dogs and cats fit in.
Nonetheless, it’s interesting to speculate whether your preference for owning a cat or a dog might lend clues to your health.
US Pet Ownership Results in Health Care Savings of $11.7 Billion a Year
Human Animal Bond Research Initiative (HABRI) Foundation found that Americans save $11.7 billion annually in health care costs due to pet ownership.5 Much of the savings came in the form of reduced doctor visits, with pet owners visiting 0.6 times less often annually than people without pets.
The study found the average cost of a doctor visit is $139, which led to savings of $11.37 billion annually in health care costs. About 20 million dog owners also walked their pet five or more times a week, which led to even greater benefits.
The extra pet-related activity lowered the incidence of obesity in this group, leading to another $419 million in health care savings.
Further, the researchers believe their estimates of the health care savings associated with pet ownership are conservative, as it did not factor in many health conditions known to be positively influenced by pets.
More economic data was necessary before the related savings could be calculated, but adding them into the mix would likely significantly increase the $11.7 billion figure.
✓ Infection control
✓ Cardiovascular disease
✓ Blood pressure
✓ Psychological issues
Many of the Benefits of Pet Ownership Cannot Be Measured
It’s difficult to put a monetary value on pet ownership since much of what they offer — unconditional love, companionship, loyalty — is priceless. As study co-author Terry Clower, Ph.D., director of GMU's Center on Regional Analysis, told the Washington Business Journal:6
"What we didn’t calculate is how much better you feel, [when] you come home after a tough day at the office and your pet is waiting for you. But there’s value to that."
Historically, people have tended to own fewer pets as they age, but the baby boomer generation is showing no signs of slowing pet ownership. This is likely to offer many benefits, as owning pets in retirement offers unique advantages, including:7
✓ Something to touch, which provides comfort
✓ Requiring nurturing, which brings psychological and physical relaxation
✓ Encouraging more exercise
✓ Helping to lower blood pressure
✓ Helping to orient your day, as they require regular feeding and care
✓ Focusing your attention
✓ Providing humor
✓ Acting as social facilitators, giving you something to talk about
✓ Giving you a sense of purpose and adding a routine to your day
Vindication for Women With Cats?
There is an unfair stigma attached to women who love cats, but the featured study offers payback of sorts. Not only do female cat owners enjoy a 40 percent lower risk of stroke, but a 2009 study also revealed benefits specific to cat owners.
It found cat owners had a lower risk of heart attack and all cardiovascular diseases (including stroke) compared to non-cat owners.8 The researchers concluded, “Acquisition of cats as domestic pets may represent a novel strategy for reducing the risk of cardiovascular diseases in high-risk individuals.”
While you shouldn’t adopt a cat (or any pet) only because of the health advantages, the fact that they exist serves as the proverbial icing on the pet ownership cake.