“Absolutely!” replied my friend, Beth. “Of course!” answered my sister and mother in unison. “Certainly,” said my boyfriend following his son’s affirmative response. “Can we just eat…quietly?” queried my dad.
The above testimonies represent the results of my informal poll addressing the issue of whether pets improve the health status of their owners. While clearly not scientifically or methodologically precise, my poll demonstrates the popular belief that pets do have positive effects on their owners; a belief that is both supported and refuted by data, media outlets and individuals.
As an example of the contradictory nature of responses to the above question, I offer our government’s own stances on the subject. The Centers for Disease Control website (http://www.cdc.gov/healthypets/health_benefits.htm) states that pets reduce their owners’ blood pressure, cholesterol and triglyceride levels as well as their feelings of loneliness. The site also maintains additional benefits of pet ownership include increased opportunities for exercise and interaction with others.
On its website (http://consensus.nih.gov/1987/1987HealthBenefitsPetsta003html.htm), the National Institutes of Health concludes that further research into the question of whether pets improve their owners’ health must be conducted under controlled, quantifiable circumstances. On its newer site (http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/), the NIH reaffirms its position that additional research must be conducted to conclusively answer the question.
I am not a scientist qualified to conduct a comprehensive study regarding the potential health benefits of pet ownership. I am, however, a person who has had the privilege of serving pets and their owners for more than a decade. In other words, I am an individual who has witnessed many instances of a pet’s ability to improve the physical and psychological states of a loving human.
The most poignant testimony of an animal’s ability to improve the health of an owner involves Travis, a captivating eight-year-old whose intelligence is unrivaled by another’s, and his dog, Charlotte. I had the honor of meeting Travis during the summer of 2010. While Travis played with my boyfriend’s son, his parents told me about their son and his dog. Travis has Asperger’s Syndrome, an autism spectrum disorder, that includes among its symptoms a limited empathy for other living things.
Charlotte, a mixed breed, mid-size dog, was rescued from behind a dumpster by Travis’ mother after a dentist appointment during the winter of 2009. Barely three weeks old and unable to hold her head up, Charlotte was not expected to live through the five mile drive from the local vet’s office to Travis’ home. After weeks of rehabilitation including countless bottle feedings, Charlotte was healthy enough to wreak havoc in her new home.
Picking Travis’ favorite toy, Charlotte began to chew. Caught in the act of disemboweling a stuffed brethren, Charlotte was about to be reprimanded when Travis jumped between her and his father. Travis explained to his dad that Charlotte didn’t deserve to be punished for the following few reasons: he no longer liked the toy she had gutted, life had abused Charlotte enough and, above all, he loved her more than any other thing.
After the following day’s visit with his behavioral therapist, Travis sat in the waiting room while his parents were addressed by his counselor. The therapist, impressed with the preceding session, advised the couple to not place Charlotte with an adoptive family as they had planned. The therapist proudly explained that Travis had expressed empathy when describing the growth, the depth of his relationship with Charlotte, a rarity for individuals with Asperger’s Syndrome.
Although I have not analyzed Travis’ relationship with his dog numerically, chemically or scientifically, I still recognize it as demonstrative of a person’s health being improved by a pet. So does his therapist. So do his parents.
Unlike the NIH, I believe the answer to this article’s question cannot be answered with controlled, quantifiable studies in keeping with the scientific method. I believe the answer can only be discerned by considering each individual’s relationship with his or her pet. Every person is different as is each pet. It follows that every relationship between each owner and every pet is unique. I believe the only common denominator between these relationships is improved human health, physical and/or psychological, as a result of pet ownership. My conclusion is based simply on my personal and professional observations, that’s all.