No reason not to have an axolotl for a pet

Charlie Powell

Washington State University’s College of Veterinary Medicine, under the leadership of the late Dean Leo Bustad, is where the concept of the human-animal bond was transformed into an academic discipline.

Questioning that around here is almost tantamount to blasphemy. But a new study from Tufts University’s Institute for Human-Animal Interaction does just that.

The work was published in Health Psychology and Behavioral Medicine this year. Written by Megan Mueller, a professor of human-animal interaction, co-director of the Tuft’s Institute, the work is intriguing.

What Mueller and her four co-authors found was that while pets are an important part of the family system, to say they are an important social determinant for health may be a stretch.

“ … there is a need for more nuanced assessment of not only who owns pets, but how pet ownership is related to various health outcomes, and which sociodemographic and contextual factors moderate these associations,” the authors wrote.

The team collected data from 1,267 adults nationwide. That number made the sample size significant. The results suggested that pet owners were systematically different from nonpet owners in a variety of ways.

Well certainly, if one chooses to acquire a pet, they have to be of a different mindset than those who choose not to or those for which the thought never crosses their mind. Furthermore, there were differences in demographics. People pinching pennies aggressively are unlikely to acquire an animal that they may see as an additional expense, for example.

OK, we see indigent people with pets all the time, so what’s the difference? It turns out there is a lot of difference and not just financially. While the pets provide varying levels of companionship to the indigent, they may also be often more of a co-inhabitant in the person’s environment living off scraps of human food waste, not pet food necessarily.

The authors also discovered there are contextual differences between those who own dogs and cat owners. The big findings, however, were to follow.

The authors found “ … pet ownership was not associated with overall health status or Body Mass Index, but dog ownership was associated with higher levels of physical activity.”

The paper goes on to say that people who own pets had higher odds of having an anxiety disorder with gender moderating this relationship. Curiously though, this association was not present for dog or cat owners. The finding was limited to this relationship regarding other types of pets owned.

Both dog and cat owners had higher odds of suffering with depression. And employment status significantly moderated the relationship between dog ownership status and depression.

In their conclusions, the authors find that this study suggests pet ownership is a much more complex and context specific phenomenon. These findings run counter to much of what is in the lay press about pet ownership as almost a panacea for life’s challenges.

My family have gratefully rescued three dogs and one cat. But where did they come from? Isn’t that as important as the benefits we and they got from our ownership?

One dog was being left in an empty house unattended for 12 to 14 hours a day. The other dog was all but handed to me through a drive-in fast-food window. The third dog was about to be relinquished when we were asked to take it. The cat was dumped with its box of siblings to fend for themselves in a local grocery store parking lot on a drizzly February morning.

I think we benefited the most, and maybe we are different.

Powell is the public information officer for the Washington State University College of Veterinary Medicine, which provides this column as a community service. For questions or concerns about animals you’d like to read about, email cpowell@vetmed.wsu.edu.

Recommended for you