We just adopted a dog, meaning I'm now a pet owner, meaning I'm now responsible for another living creature. It's weird.
Her name is Bella. She's a pit bull mixed with something that is not a pit bull, and that's as much as we know. She's a fine animal, super loving, and has yet to bite off my toes; so far, so good. But beginning this process of taking care of another living creature has all kinds of new concerns floating through my brain, many of them not so great.
For instance, Bella defecates four times a day. Let's say she survives another decade—she's two, right now. That means I'll be on the hook for bending over and picking up 14,600 pieces of fecal matter. Then there's the twice-a-day feedings (7,300 in total), tons more walks, and the financial cost of whatever medicines and surgeries she'll need. Certainly, I'll be forced to miss any number of social activities due to these responsibilities. (On the flip side, she'll be there as a perfect excuse if it's an undesirable activity.)
What, exactly, do we pet owners get out of this? Why are we so willing to sign up for this additional, yet highly optional, stress?
There has been no shortage of studies examining the human-pet relationship, and pretty much all of them find positive results for the human side of the equation. Cat owners have a lower percentage of death from cardiovascular diseases. Petting a dog can boost your immune system. A more recent study from Purdue found that the use of guinea pigs in classroom settings has been found to improve sociability in autistic children. One comprehensive 1991 study found that "pet acquisition may have positive effects on human health and behavior, and that in some cases these effects are relatively long term."
"The media hype doesn't match the reality. Eighty-five thousand Americans a year are taken to the hospital because they trip over their dogs."
Case closed then, right? If you don't have a pet, you're basically committing suicide. Not so fast.
"It's a real effect for some people, for sure," says Harold Herzog, a professor at the Western Carolina University who has been studying human-animal interactions for three decades. “"But it's not real for other people, for sure."
When Herzog began his studies, he was enthusiastic about the positive effect animals have on human health. But when he began to look at the pet effect, his findings did not echo the popular sentiment. "I started collecting hundreds of papers, and had three stacks on the floor," Herzog says. "One pile showed the positive effects, another pile showed no impact, and the third pile that pet owners were actually worse off." Findings in the third suggested owners have more migraine headaches and have higher likelihoods of drinking more extensively and being overweight. A 2006 study from Finland warns anyone between the ages of 20 and 56 to steer clear of pet ownership.
At the end of Herzog's research dive, he discovered that any correlation between pet ownership and, well, anything else, could be verified if one looked only at the specific study that verified it. In other words, the studies were pretty meaningless and far from the portrait of pure positivity that has proliferated.
"The media hype doesn't match the reality," Herzog says. "Eighty-five thousand Americans a year are taken to the hospital because they trip over their dogs."
To Herzog, the perceived consensus that pets are positive is the result of a collective bias toward positive effects, wherein the media only reports on studies showcasing a direct relationship. This makes sense as far as general interest goes; if you're a journalist flipping through studies, you're not going to get pumped at "no correlation" results. But, the fact is, no correlation results are also worth pointing out. (Note: It's not just the media. Researchers are more inclined to publish studies that confirm their hypotheses, as opposed to those that don't; in fact, there's a movement to change this bias in academia.)
"People like feel-good stories, and we really want to believe that pets make us happier and healthier," Herzog says. "And for some people, they are. But the idea that if you own a pet you're going to be better off in terms of health and happiness, I don't think the data supports that."
Which puts Herzog in a strange position, because what he has discovered goes against his own personal feelings. "I actually feel [my cat] makes me less lonely," he says. "When my wife's away, I talk to her, there's this someone else around." Herzog also views therapeutic animal programs (using them to help wounded veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder or swim-with-dolphins programs that help children with autism) with some skepticism. "The data supporting is not nearly as good as most people think," Herzog says. "In all fairness, that's my view. I'm in the minority."
"I've known him for years, and Harold is a super curmudgeon," says Alan Beck, the director for the Center of the Human-Animal Bond at Purdue University. "I once said he's trying to prove that apple pie causes cancer. He likes being on the negative."
While Herzog may have a point, there is enough anecdotal evidence to point toward a mutually beneficial relationship. Humans have been keeping pets for at least 27,000 years; 52 percent of American households have pets. There must be some positives. For Beck, the disconnect may come from the expansive claims, perhaps somewhat exaggerated due to the quick rush for one-size-fits-all treatments.
"I've known him for years, and Harold is a super curmudgeon. I once said he's trying to prove that apple pie causes cancer. He likes being on the negative."
"Animals don't cure cancer, but there's more evidence for the value of animals than for most of the herbal medicine stuff," Beck says. "Some of the problem with the research is that an animal intervention is rarely an isolated intervention from which you can make a comparison." But that doesn't mean pet ownership doesn't have obvious and logical positive qualities.
"Having to focus on the present is a wonderful way of managing stress, because stress is really just bemoaning the past and fearing the future," Beck says. "If you stay in the present, you don't have the freedom to worry about the past or future. An animal really holds your attention." Being forced to walk a dog is also motivation to walk yourself, an act that has tangible health benefits. “There's nothing magical about walking a dog," Beck says. “But it holds your attention so you don't feel as tired or bored."
As far as which kind of pet makes the biggest impact? It depends less on the pet, and more on the owner. "The one thing that really seems to matter is the degree to which people can anthropomorphize the pet," says Allen McConnell, a psychologist from Miami University. "If you can anthropomorphize your iguana, even though it's a cold-blooded amphibian, that's good enough."
Really, the fact we have pets at all is some kind of proof—albeit, probably not scientifically—that our species is getting something positive out of the interaction. It also points toward why we began doing so in the first place. "We were naturally selected to appreciate nature," Beck says. "Most who were not good observers of nature were probably selected against." As in, if you didn't pay any attention to nature, you weren't able to see the predator lurking right there in the thick of the forest.
Our companion pets may help lower stress levels, and they may help us avoid heart problems. And hell, maybe they are simply the motivation we need to get off our asses and go for a walk about the neighborhood. But one thing they definitely are, no matter how large or small, is portable bits of nature-on-demand. At the very least, they're a constant reminder that, at our core, we're all animals.