Mad as a cat

by Marc Wilson / 07 February, 2013
Evidence for the benefits of pet ownership is far from clear-cut.
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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?

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