Owning a pet is linked to health and wellbeing, particularly for older people and patients recovering from major illness, say researchers in this week's British Medical Journal.
About half of households in the United Kingdom own pets and over 90% of pet owners regard their pet as a valued family member.
Research has suggested that pet ownership is associated with a reduced risk of heart disease, lower use of family doctor services, and a reduced risk of asthma and allergies in young children.
Although more recent studies have failed to support these findings, research has pointed to less absenteeism from school through sickness among children who live with pets.
Explanations for the association between pet ownership and human health include social benefits and emotional support. Indeed, studies have shown that support from pets may mirror some of the elements of human relationships known to contribute to health.
However, conflict between health and pet ownership can arise, say the authors. For instance, it is thought that up to 70% of pet owners would disregard advice to get rid of a pet because of allergies, while reports abound of older people avoiding medical care through fear of being admitted to hospital or residential care as this often means giving up a pet.
People do not own pets specifically to enhance their health, rather they value the relationship and the contribution their pet makes to their quality of life. Greater understanding among health professionals is therefore needed to assure people that they do not need to choose between pet ownership and compliance with health advice, they conclude.
Citation: Pet ownership and human health BMJ Volume 331, pp 1252-4; Commentary: Pets - pleasures and problems BMJ Volume 331, pp 1254-5
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