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One of my mental hobbies is concocting hypotheses that I hope someone else will test. Today's hypothesis involves the health benefits of pet ownership.

It is common wisdom that owning a pet makes you healthier.  Interestingly, the group that does NOT get health benefits from pet ownership is older people "in a community," according to one study.

My hypothesis is that the reason younger people get health benefits from pets, while old people "in a community" do not, is that the younger people spend more time outdoors walking their dogs, gaining both cardio benefit and exposure to sun which generates vitamin D. Old people let someone else walk the dog, or they have a doggy door, or they simply own a cat.

Interestingly, vitamin D confers similar health benefits as pet ownership, and most people don't get enough of it. Is it just a coincidence?

One way to test, albeit not conclusively, the reason pet owners are healthier than non-owners is to see if cat owners get the same health benefits as dog owners. My hypothesis is that cat owners get less sunlight, and less cardio, because you typically don't walk a cat.

Some of the health differences, if any, might be because dog owners are hardier people than cat owners to begin with. If you're not too healthy, and want a pet, you get a cat before you get a dog. So that would have to be factored in.

All I know for sure is that since I got my first dog, I'm getting all sorts of sun exposure that I wouldn't normally get, in small doses throughout the day. And I also get about an hour of walking per day, cumulative, that I wouldn't otherwise get. My cats give me none of those potential benefits.

So the testable hypothesis is that most of the health benefits of pet ownership are associated with dog owners, not cat owners, and the reason has to do with the walking of the dog more than the emotional bonding, although the latter might have some health benefits too.

This hypothesis came to me because I was wondering why my asthma was so much worse this spring. My particular brand of asthma is allergy induced, and I am spending far more time outdoors in the pollen than I ever did because of my dog. So chalk that up on the negative side.
 
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0 Rank Up Rank Down
Jun 15, 2009
Too many people attribute all sunlight-related benefits to vitamin D. Some of the benefits of Vitamin D are inaccurate and the drawbacks of excess minimized.

1. Vitamin D puts calcium into your blood stream, not bones. Without adequate Vitamin K (particularly K2 or menaquinone) the result is calcified soft tissue.

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19083421?ordinalpos=1&itool=EntrezSystem2.PEntrez.Pubmed.Pubmed_ResultsPanel.Pubmed_DefaultReportPanel.PMC_FreeArticle_ad&linkpos=3&log$=pmcad6_article

This process is, ironically, exacerbated by salicylates like aspirin which are given to people to prevent heart attacks and stroke, and which work by interfering with vitamin K. In the short term, this helps. In the long term, this leads to increased heart attacks and strokes due to arterial calcification. Vitamin K2 (menaquinone) has recently been shown to be powerful in preventing and reversing heart disease. (See the Rotterdam study)

2. Many vitamin D related studies assume that low 25D represents a deficiency. However low 25D is also a marker for chronic inflammation. (inflammation -> increased TLR-4 -> increased CYB271B -> more 25D transformed into 1,25D = lower 25D levels)

Inflammation lowers 25D since it is converted to 1,25D. The result is people confusing, in many cases, correlation with causation. Low 25D doesn't cause heart attacks. Chronic infection causes both low 25D and heart attacks. Adding more 25D should increase, rather than decrease, cardiovascular disease since it would add more calcium to people's blood streams.

3. While it's been noted that sunlight lowers cholesterol levels, it's ironic that cholesterol is the base component for vitamin D, and the vitamin D receptor seems like it might be the path by which high cholesterol leads to heart disease.




 
 
0 Rank Up Rank Down
Jun 15, 2009
Too many people attribute all sunlight-related benefits to vitamin D. Some of the benefits of Vitamin D are inaccurate and the drawbacks of excess minimized.

1. Vitamin D puts calcium into your blood stream, not bones. Without adequate Vitamin K (particularly K2 or menaquinone) the result is calcified soft tissue.

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19083421?ordinalpos=1&itool=EntrezSystem2.PEntrez.Pubmed.Pubmed_ResultsPanel.Pubmed_DefaultReportPanel.PMC_FreeArticle_ad&linkpos=3&log$=pmcad6_article

This process is, ironically, exacerbated by salicylates like aspirin which are given to people to prevent heart attacks and stroke, and which work by interfering with vitamin K. In the short term, this helps. In the long term, this leads to increased heart attacks and strokes due to arterial calcification. Vitamin K2 (menaquinone) has recently been shown to be powerful in preventing and reversing heart disease. (See the Rotterdam study)

2. Many vitamin D related studies assume that low 25D represents a deficiency. However low 25D is also a marker for chronic inflammation. (inflammation -> increased TLR-4 -> increased CYB271B -> more 25D transformed into 1,25D = lower 25D levels)

Inflammation lowers 25D since it is converted to 1,25D. The result is people confusing, in many cases, correlation with causation. Low 25D doesn't cause heart attacks. Chronic infection causes both low 25D and heart attacks. Adding more 25D should increase, rather than decrease, cardiovascular disease since it would add more calcium to people's blood streams.

3. While it's been noted that sunlight lowers cholesterol levels, it's ironic that cholesterol is the base component for vitamin D, and the vitamin D receptor seems like it might be the path by which high cholesterol leads to heart disease.




 
 
+1 Rank Up Rank Down
Jun 15, 2009
When I worked in a nursing home, we had a resident cat. One elderly lady once confided to me that she was determined not to die until the cat did, since she felt that the others wouldn't love it or look after it as well as she did. I think the cat gave her some purpose in life, and that was worth more health-wise than any other benefit of a pet.

I left before finding out if it worked for her, though.
 
 
Jun 15, 2009
Hi Scott,

A year ago I studied this topic for a magazine article I was writing. I found out that there have been a few empirical studies about health benefits of pets and that the general trend of the results is quite exactly as you assume.

1. There may be some benefit in owning any pet. Especially lonely people and people with mental health problems get psychological support from an animal. (I remember one article implied that even a bird can make a group therapy session more relaxed and people talk more openly. But I suppose that was not a controlled study, more of a series of observations by health professionals.)

2. There is definitely a long-term health benefit in owning a dog. This was reported in several studies, some of them comparing effects of different animals, mostly cats and dogs. Most of the researchers explained this by the increase in outdoor physical activity, but also by the increase in social activity.

So, yeah, seems you're quite correct.

jml
 
 
Jun 12, 2009
My cat likes walking and will often do about 3 !$%*! with me particularly if I wait until dusk (which reduces sun exposure as Scott says).
I must admit that I also have a dog and the cat likes to hang with the dog.

The dog's a wuss though and has to wear a line next to the road. The cat stalks freely through available cover, springing up trees to investgate the contents of bird houses and nests.

We all seem pretty healthy. Because the cat likes the dog so much, I unfortunately can't perform the control experiment of walking the cat without the dog.
 
 
Jun 11, 2009
If you want to try something to help with your allergies - start taking MSM, 1000 mg twice a day. We get some interesting documents come through my office and one had a report from a naturopathic doctor who found that his patients that he recommended they take it for joint issues found that their allergies also dimished or went away completely.

He tested the theory with other patients who were only complaining of allergies and lo and behold it worked for them too.

So I tried it. Sure enough, it worked for me too.
 
 
Jun 10, 2009
This is one of your less impressive posts in my opinion. I have been reading and loving your blog for the last couple of years and have found it immensely enjoyable. Thanks.

This post on the other hand has too many generalizations that make it hard to swallow. I would say lumping cat owners and implying that dog/cat ownership has anything but a peripheral effect on overall fitness is a little crazy. If you are going to stay in shape and eat well, it really won't matter much whether you own a dog or a cat. They may help you stay motivated, but no way will going out and buying a dog fix a person's health issues.

Also you seem to have completely overlooked the lowered blood pressure aspect that would come from both petting dogs and cats. This post is interesting but a little too many generalizations and simplistic.
 
 
Jun 10, 2009
my family is gone this week and i have to take care of the yorkshire terrier. I hate it
 
 
Jun 10, 2009
About time you got a real pet, dogs<cats

Im fairly sure its been proven that pets confer health benefits, psychological and physical. Even cats give benefits of "Companionship" I remember reading somewhere that ex convicts have a lower rate of re-offending if they were given a pet or a plant to take care off in jail.
 
 
Jun 10, 2009
This reminds me of something you wrote earlier. If someone has the self-discipline and 'stick-to-it-ness' to write daily affirmations, wouldn't they also have the self-discipline and 'stick-to-it-ness' required to produce a hit daily cartoon strip?
 
 
+2 Rank Up Rank Down
Jun 10, 2009
My first dog had to be an overall negative. He was supposed to be a 2-year-old rescue. Turned out he was at least 7 - which was good only in the sense that 7 years later he has passed on and life is far more peaceful.

Current dog is much better. She's a joy to have around is good for my soul - if nothing else. I don't walk her much, but I do play with her in the yard - and take her swimming with me in the lake (she has her own life jacket).

The cat's a pain. I can't remember why I ever liked cats before. Of course, I got suckered with this one. I agreed to take her after her owner assured me she was strictly an outdoor cat. She is, in fact, strictly an indoor cat. She acts like I've just set fire to her tail anytime I take her within three feet of a door.

The rabbit's nice, but I'd like him better if he would just stop chewing through all my electrical cords.

Chickens are a mixed bag. They produce tasty eggs and eat bugs in the garden, but they also dig up stuff I'd rather they left alone.

Goats are the best. They are as friendly as any dog I've ever known - but not nearly so demanding. They don't bark. They keep the grass mowed and the blackberries under control - and they produce milk - which can actually help control local allergies - because they eat local plants. I walk a couple of them more than I walk the dog - so they are good for exercise. What more could you want?

Bees are nice - but don't really qualify as pets. They do get you working outside from time to time -and local honey is also a good way to desensitize to local pollen.

Most overlooked health benefit, IMO? Structure. You don't have the luxury of lazing any day away with animals. You have to take care of them - and I think sometimes just getting out of bed (and out of the house) every day at the same time - is the best thing you can do for your health.


 
 
Jun 10, 2009
Scott: From U.S. News and World Report: Cats help shield owners from heart attack: http://health.usnews.com/usnews/health/healthday/080221/cats-help-shield-owners-from-heart-attack.htm

"Kathie Cole, a clinical nurse at the UCLA Medical Center and School of Nursing and the lead author of the 2005 dog-and-heart-failure study, said she wasn't surprised by the Minnesota findings.

'I would be inclined to think that any animal that is perceived as meaningful to a person in a positive way would have health benefits," Cole said. She pointed to multiple studies that have found that animal companions "have a calming effect in regard to mental stressors.'"
 
 
0 Rank Up Rank Down
Jun 10, 2009
I love my dog, but everybody else's dog annoys me.

Maybe pets have a negative effect and pet owners have better health because there's one less animal to irritate them. I'm going to improve my blood pressure by getting the neighbor's dog to quit crapping in my yard once and for all. "But your Honor, it was a medical emergency! My favorite cartoonist TOLD me to do it"
 
 
Jun 10, 2009
I think the pet owner thing applies to horses, too. Aside from "walking" the dog, there is handling the poop. It is handling the poop that confers the benefits - relating the owner to a broad spectrum of biological essences. The biodiversity enriches the environment for the pet owner, enhancing immune system response.

In addition, pet owners share breaths - exchange hormones - with their pets. They pet - skin contact - and often expose themselves to hair or objects exposed to the pet's saliva. The exchange of hormones - an important physical cue and component of bonding between friends and family - stimulates the body's sense of belonging and contributing to a community.

Pet owners also have to procure food for their pets, equalizing the disparity between dogs and cats on the basis of walking the dog vs. cleaning the kitty litter of those lumps and clumps.

But, really, it is the poop that enhances the owner's health. Just like changing diapers keeps young parents healthier.
 
 
+2 Rank Up Rank Down
Jun 10, 2009
A couple of thoughts spring to mind:

* I read a little while ago (forget where) that some people had spent loads of money building a robot to help sick people (kids?) recover. The robot provided them with "contact", "friendship", or "companionship" (or whatever they called it). I remember thinking at the time that they'd be better off getting the invalids a dog.

* Scott, do you still take the magnesium supplements for your tennis knees (if I can call them that)? Last year (or was it the year before), around 23 June you wrote that you'd noticed you needed less asthma medication since you started taking magnesium for your knees (it helped after tennis). And as this blog is a sound source of medical advice, I started too. Much less asthma medication :-)
 
 
Jun 10, 2009
Some info from ARF's website...(some of these facts seem dog specific, but others seem to apply to both cats and dogs)

"Studies have shown that medical benefits of pet ownership include decreased blood pressure and higher survival rates of patients with coronary heart disease. Physical therapy patients with pets show improved balance, coordination, muscular strength and language skills greater than those without pets.

Children with pets in the household have higher IQ scores and show increased emotional reciprocity. They also show a higher sense of responsibility, demonstrate increased ability to nurture and care for others, and have an easier time interacting with their peers.

Children exposed to two or more dogs or cats in infancy were half as likely to develop common allergies as children with no pets in the home.

Prisoners and individuals with mental impairments are reported show more appropriate social behavior when they have pets or are able to interact with pets."
 
 
+4 Rank Up Rank Down
Jun 10, 2009
You miss out on one health benefit of dog ownership, which explains why old people in a community don't get the benefit - dog owners make friends. Having friends around is good for you, and there was a paper in the British Journal of Psychology a few years ago, which showed that having a dog made people talk to you. it didn't seem to matter what you looked like, or what the dog looked like, if you had a dog, people stopped and chatted. Hence you make friends. Old people in retirement communities might find it easier to make friends, being surrounded by similar people, hence they don't need a dog to do it.
 
 
Jun 10, 2009
You seem to have a cause/effect problem in your reasoning. You stated that the health benefit of owning a pet is not as great for the elderly. Occam's razor Scott . . .the health benefit has nothing to do with pet ownership. The health benefit comes from being young and healthy instead of old and sickly.
 
 
+1 Rank Up Rank Down
Jun 10, 2009
wow. none of you are dog people. Scott, when you talked about increased allergies from being outdoors, you should compare it to the allergic effect of cat dander in an inclosed house
 
 
-4 Rank Up Rank Down
Jun 10, 2009
<em>If you're not too healthy, and want a pet, you get a cat before you get a dog.</em>

<strong>Excuse me?</strong> I'm healthy as hell, and I will <em>always</em> get a cat before a dog. I hate dogs; I think they're incredible stupid.
 
 
 
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