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Cats Are Not Medicine

After distilling all of these factors out of the equation, it turned out that the cats (and dogs) themselves were not associated with better health. Pet ownership is more of a signifier of the sort of life that leads to better health, not the driver of that better health. “We’re not completely ruling out that pet ownership leads to good health,” said Parast. “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.”

The study can’t rule it out because it had a serious limitation. That’s what gives me hope, and Parast, too. It was a cross-sectional study, meaning it only studied people at a single point in time. (e.g., Does your house have a dog? Does your child have asthma?)

To really understand this relationship, a study would need to follow kids over time and see if they grew up healthier. This remains to be done on a large scale.

“I think there are many other positive benefits to owning a pet besides thinking that it will improve your health,” said Parast. “Obviously having a pet brings joy and companionship and a multitude of other things.”

I noted that those things are associated with mental health and physical health.

“Right,” she said. “But we don’t have measures of long-term outcomes to test that. I’ve heard people say that having a pet teaches responsibility, which is hard to measure. And if you really wanted to measure it, you’d test something like, 10 years later did this kid grow up to be someone who can hold a job?”

That sort of cohort study could also help understand how pet ownership may lead to better health. The idea is that, given this sort of longitudinal data over time, researchers could compare pet owners and non-owners, and then for example, five years later look at differences in physical activity among both groups. Then some years after that, researchers could look at health outcomes, and they could determine if maybe that physical activity is a mediating factor between pet ownership and health, meaning that essentially owning a dog does make people healthier.

“That would be great,” she said. “I mean, gosh, I hope that would find something. 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.”

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