Pet ownership as a social determinant of health

A study published today in BMC Public Health finds that patterns of pet ownership among older adults is not only widespread, but that it appears to be emotionally engaging and important to their social functioning. The researchers also find that pet ownership is a significant predictor of the likelihood of ever having experienced depression. We take a closer look at the results of the study below.

In a study published today in BMC Public Health, Megan Kiely Mueller (Tufts University Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine) and colleagues used data from the Health and Retirement Study (HRS), an ongoing biennial longitudinal cohort study of approximately 20,000 Americans aged 50 and older, to examine the relationship between multiple health outcomes and pet ownership. Their sample included 1,657 of the participants of the HRS. To assess the characteristics of pet ownership, participants were asked to report whether they currently owned a pet, types of pets (dog, cat, small mammal, bird, fish, reptile, or other), number of each type of pet, and number of years they have had pets.

Participants were also asked about their attachment to pets using the Pet Attachment Questionnaire which included the following items:

“Do you consider your pet a friend?”, “Do you talk to your pet?”, “Would you say that owning a pet adds to your happiness?”, “Do you talk to others about your pet?”, “Do you often play with your pet?” and “Does your pet know how you feel about things?”

Overall health was also measured, using a five point self-report rating from 1 = Excellent and 5 = Poor. In addition, participants were asked if they had ever experienced depression (yes/no) and if they had experienced depression within the last week (yes/no). Finally, frequency of mild, moderate, and vigorous physical activity was also measured.

Dogs and cats were the most frequently reported pets owned and pet owners were more likely to own their own homes compared to non-pet owners in the sample studied. The authors also found that pet ownership was more common in older adulthood. Furthermore, over 80% of all pet owners reported that they considered their pet a friend, talked to their pet regularly, felt their pet added to their happiness, talked to others about their pet and played with their pet.

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Although more than 60% of dog owners regularly walked their dogs, which may be indicative of maintaining a physically active, healthy lifestyle, there was no significant difference between pet owners and non-owners on overall health status. However, pet ownership was a significant predictor of the likelihood of ever having experienced depression. This could indicate a relationship between pet ownership and depression, but, due to the cross-sectional nature of the study, it is impossible to determine the directionality of that relationship.

So the question arises: Do people become depressed because they have opted to include pets in their lives or do people who are depressed opt to acquire a pet as a way of treating their depression?

It should be noted that the study found that current depression (in the last week) was not associated with pet ownership status, suggesting that the companionship of the pet may alleviate depressive symptoms or that the loss of a previous pet and subsequent loss of companionship may exacerbate depressive symptoms.

The authors conclude their study by pointing out that, although pet ownership may increase the potential for social interaction and support, more research is needed to explore potential health benefits and challenges unique to older adults. Furthermore, intervention and longitudinal studies that identify strategies for optimizing mutually-beneficial human-animal relationships across the life-course are also required to fully understand the implications of pet ownership on health.

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