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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Jun 10, 2009
I doubt it. If I had a dollar for every overweight dog I saw with an equally overweight owner...I've known so many people to buy a dog so they'll *have* to walk. But the same person who can't say no to treating themselves, doesn't say no to treats for the pet. They can't force themselves to be active before the pet, and they cut as many corners as possible after the pet. A generally active person like yourself will get more exercise due to pet ownership, but you probably won't notice any real difference in your overall health.

I think the only more or less guaranteed benefits would be psychological, which may help due to stress reduction (stress is a major factor in both weight issues and other general health issues). Of course, you can get this from e-pets, such as Tamagotchi, Sims Pets and Pet Society, but if you start sitting around more to play these games, you'll soon see a negative physical impact.
Jun 10, 2009
Oh - and don't forget all the bending exercise you get picking up the dog poop!
Jun 10, 2009
I get plenty of cardio running to find the cat whenever he starts hacking something up on the carpet, and climbing the ladder to the crawlspace to get him down whenever he gets stuck up there is a good workout too. The neighbors dogs just raise my bloodpressure every morning because they have to bark for 30 mins when they get put out. I'd like to just put them down.
Jun 10, 2009
More sun exposure also equals higher risk of skin cancer. Do you use sunscreen when walking your dog?
Jun 10, 2009
One of the issues here is:

Are the health benefits of pets *replaceable* with vitamins and exercise? Or can they stack? Are they strictly interchangeable benefits? I'm not sure they are. I'm *quite* positive that the *mental* health benefits of pet ownership and of exercise are not identical. Both may be advantageous (as may sun), beyond just the obvious physical side of things. But I'm fairly certain they are not interchangeable.

Also, is is possible that these benefits do not accrue across the board? That is to say, do people all get the same benefits from exercise? I tend to doubt that. I'll bet there is a fair variance in the mental and physical returns of exercise. The problem with studies is they agglomerate a group to produce a statistical result on a particular point of study, but it rarely says much about any other axis of interest. That needs another study. And you never have enough studies or data.

I'm betting pet ownership is a bit the same way - it provides benefits that some people get more out of than others and hence the mental and physical health benefits differ. The obvious edge case is the negative health benefit of pet ownership for someone allergic to the pet! But the reality is some people would get a lot out of having a pet - both physically and mentally - and some don't (they seem apathetic or slightly antagonistic to 'their wife's cat' or 'the husband's dog'). I suspect exercise shares a similar characteristic, but with a different group of people for whom its advantages maximize and others for whom it is less useful.

The more I see of genetics, the more convinced I am that what you are dealt in the initial package has a lot to do with how different things will work out for you in life.

For my own part, my pets have brought a happiness (and I'm sure we can find studies showing happiness leads to good health, depression leads to poorer health and is linked to disease if we look) that no amount of circuit training or work on the wind trainer or even a softball game or a squash game ever gave me.

In short, I think your theory, like many simplistic thought experiments, is just that - too simplistic. It will fail against the alter of the complexity of the real world.
Jun 10, 2009
Scott has gone over to the dark side - he's now a "dog person"... {sigh}

seriously, though, I read a study a few yrs back (can't remember where & too lazy to google) that cat owners have some average delta lower blood pressure. since blood pressure is the mother of all health KPIs I suspect this somewhat explains the dropoff in effecicacy among the elderly - if they're just exposed to the cat(s) at the end of their lives whatever marginal damage done by marginal higher BP is irreversable at that point. it's like starting to use sunscreen in your 60s - better than not but doesn't undo a 1/2 century of UV exposure... anecdotally, there's nothing more soothing/relaxing than a purring cat in your lap!

enjoy your dog - as for me & my family, we have discovered the one true path: the Siberian cat! hypo-allergenic, big/strong/athletic, intelligent, loyal & affectionate!
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