Mad as a cat

by Marc Wilson / 07 February, 2013
Evidence for the benefits of pet ownership is far from clear-cut.
Read more: Gareth Morgan: capitalist with a cause Subscriber contentIcon definitionSubscriber content

Mad as a cat
Photo Getty Images/Listener photo illustration


Gareth Morgan is reported to be receiving hate mail. He certainly appears to have stirred up a hornets’ nest with his suggestion that New Zealanders should make their current pet cat their last. Morgan is concerned about cat predation damaging our native birdlife and he has the support of at least some of the scientific community. And the opposition of others.

And why is he getting hate mail? Because people who have cats love them (for the most part), and people who don’t have cats but do have pets want to protect their right to have pets. If cats go, it won’t be long before it’s dogs, goldfish, monkeys, etc. Not to mention all the benefits that go along with having pets, after all.

Well, not so fast there. It turns out that the evidence for the beneficial effects of pet ownership is not as clear-cut as we assume. A couple of weeks ago, Health columnist Margo White wrote about the cat-borne parasite Toxoplasma gondii, which has been shown to affect physical health and has psychological effects – the longer you have it the more your personality changes.

What White didn’t mention is that cat owners may be at greater risk of developing schizophrenia, because people who have schizophrenia are significantly more likely to test positive for the parasite. Admittedly, research also implicates exposure to influenza A, rubella, herpes and polio in the weeks preceding and following birth as increasing risk as well. It’s interesting when one considers that the idea of “insanity” as caused by microbes dates back at least as far as the 1890s.

But back to pets. There’s a mythology that having animals around is a good thing. Horror writer Dean Koontz routinely has dogs as protagonists taking on evil, and (at the other end of the entertainment spectrum) the Hallmark Channel does a fair line in pets-help-in-adversity stories. In a recent research commentary on this topic, Hal Herzog of West Carolina University notes that the bandwagon started in 1980 with the publication of a study investigating survival among 92 heart-attack patients. Four times as many pet owners saw a year out than non-owners.

These kinds of results send people scurrying to find out more, and there are indeed studies that show benefits. Unfortunately, there are also at least as many studies that suggest the opposite – pets are bad for you. The 1980 study got a lot of media attention, but a 2010 study showing that pet-owning heart patients were more likely to die within a year of heart attack made nary a ripple. Ditto for psychological well-being, reports Herzog: there isn’t conclusive evidence that pets make us happier, less anxious, and so on.

So why the myth? Herzog suggests a bias towards reporting of positive outcomes, but more problematically that much of the research is flawed. One issue is dependence on asking people to tell us how great they feel rather than relying on more robust indicators of well-being. To illustrate, one study reported that in spite of showing no improvement on standardised tests, chronic fatigue sufferers who had acquired a pet reported a variety of benefits and improvements.

This is not to say that pets might not be excellent therapeutic “tools” for working with people with a particular disorder (such as autism or ADHD), and there may well be benefits to just thinking that there are benefits to having a pet.

In the late 1970s, Aline and Robert Kidd investigated personality differences of cat and dog owners. Among the differences they reported were that cat lovers were less nurturing than any other pet owners, and male pet owners were more “dominant”. Female pet owners were less aggressive than anyone else but males who like dogs. Probably a good thing that Gareth didn’t go after dogs eh?

Read more: Gareth Morgan: capitalist with a cause Subscriber contentIcon definitionSubscriber content
MostReadArticlesCollectionWidget - Most Read - Used in articles
AdvertModule - Advert - M-Rec / Halfpage

Latest

Cat control and 'barking consultants': Is the council coming after your pet?
76916 2017-07-28 00:00:00Z Politics

Cat control and 'barking consultants': Is the coun…

by Bill Ralston

Councils must be barking mad to be considering spending millions more controlling cats and silencing dogs.

Read more
Filmmaker Raoul Peck: Karl Marx, James Baldwin and me
76930 2017-07-28 00:00:00Z Movies

Filmmaker Raoul Peck: Karl Marx, James Baldwin and…

by Helen Barlow

A film-maker focuses on two thinkers who questioned the social order of their day.

Read more
PayWave's great, but we're light years behind China's payment methods
76945 2017-07-28 00:00:00Z Technology

PayWave's great, but we're light years behind Chin…

by Sophie Boot

New Zealand is in the dark ages compared with China’s electronic payment methods and we need to upgrade if we want more of that country’s business.

Read more
Ain’t No Taco: Symonds Street gets a new taqueria with a twist
77130 2017-07-27 14:58:01Z Auckland Eats

Ain’t No Taco: Symonds Street gets a new taqueria …

by Kate Richards

Peter Barton, co-owner of Burger Geek, opens a taqueria a few doors down the road

Read more
Synthetic cannabis: The killer high
77113 2017-07-27 11:56:15Z Social issues

Synthetic cannabis: The killer high

by Susan Strongman

There have been eight deaths related to synthetic cannabis in just over a month. People know it's killing them. So why are they smoking it?

Read more
Winston Peters criticises use of te reo in Parliament
77102 2017-07-27 10:34:33Z Politics

Winston Peters criticises use of te reo in Parliam…

by RNZ

New Zealand First leader Winston Peters has criticised Te Ururoa Flavell for using te reo Māori in Parliament during question time.

Read more
NZ has done 'horrific job' protecting most vulnerable - commissioner
77095 2017-07-27 10:06:22Z Social issues

NZ has done 'horrific job' protecting most vulnera…

by Emile Donovan

Abuse of intellectually disabled people in state care over five decades has been brought to light in a new report by the Human Rights Commission.

Read more
Why it's time for a female Doctor Who
77083 2017-07-27 09:12:33Z Social issues

Why it's time for a female Doctor Who

by The Listener

Gender equality is lamentably slow-dawning in many endeavours, but TV and film help normalise desirable social trends. However it does cuts both ways.

Read more