School of Public Health researcher examines impact of pets on cardiovascular risk prevention

March 14, 2016

Pets could be beneficial to our health. Think: cuddling with your dog could act as a de-stressor, which, hypothetically could reduce blood pressure and help the immune system. But some studies point to negative health impacts, too. That’s why School of Public Health researcher Pamela Schreiner, Ph.D., compared various studies on the health effects of pet ownership in relation to cardiovascular risk factors in a recent article.

Schreiner is the Director of the Center to Study Human-Animal Relationships and Environments (CENSHARE) and a professor of epidemiology and community health.

Companion animals are common and their role in health is yet to be fully determined, but pets have the potential to affect the health of a large number of people, says Schreiner.

“Apart from allergies, the greatest deterrents to pet ownership are housing, finances and opportunity,” said Schreiner. “These are factors that also impact cardiovascular disease risk factors independent of pet ownership, so improving lifestyle and educational opportunities may impact human health through multiple avenues.”

While studies have reported many health benefits from pet ownership, findings were inconsistent in a limited number of studies. Cardiovascular risk factors involving lipids, glucose, obesity, and heart rate improved, worsened, or remained the same among owners.

Schreiner found pets can have both positive and negative effects on our health. Some studies linked pets to exercising more, sense of companionship, a structured lifestyle and healthier habits. Others cited the downsides of allergies and asthma associated to pets, and how grief over a pet’s loss also impacts health.

Determining why an owner chooses a pet and if a pet causes an individual to be happier or healthier can be difficult, resulting in inconclusive research.

“If pets do improve human health, it is likely through social support, reduced depression, and other psychosocial predictors of health,” said Schreiner. “The physiologic evidence of these measures, in turn, may depend on the reasons for pet adoption, the personality of the owner and the degree of bonding between the owner and the pet.”

Part of the challenge, Schreiner says, is inconsistency. It can be difficult to isolate effects from the pets themselves. Positive feelings towards pets and a sense of companionship may also establish bias.

“The literature is highly variable and there are many issues with sample size, study design and investigator beliefs that may bias results,” said Schreiner. “Studies involving animals have traditionally looked at specific functions without comparison groups and lack a sufficient number of participants, increasing the possibility for random errors.”