Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Pets are Therapeutic

It can be beneficial for mental and physical health to have a pet, for the following reasons:

1) pets offer companionship, and therefore may help people to cope with loneliness. At times I have seen relationships with pets be strong protective factors against suicide.
2) many pets, particularly dogs, may help their owners get outside regularly for exercise
3) dogs in particular may act as social catalysts, making it more likely to meet and converse with new people (this could happen while dog-walking).
4) the requirements of caring for a pet may add some structure and an external focus to daily activities, which can be healthy

For some people, having a pet can be more problematic, particularly if it is not possible, for health or economic reasons, to care for the pet adequately. And some people may have pets for unhealthy reasons (e.g. acquiring a large, vicious dog, encouraging its aggressiveness, or failing to train it adequately for safety).

The evidence on health benefits from pet ownership is actually a bit weak. I think part of this is due to inadequate studies on the subject. Also, in order for a pet to have a healthy emotional effect, there would have to be a good "match" between pet & owner, and adequate support for a healthy relationship to develop. Just as in human-human relationships, some people may choose a type of relationship that is not healthy or sustainable for them.

Here's a link to a review on pet ownership and human health:

Contact with animals can be therapeutic in other ways. There is a lot of anecdotal evidence about the merits of therapy animals. Dogs and cats are examples, but so are large animals such as horses.
Here are references to papers describing the benefits of "animal assisted therapy" with larger animals:


Here are some references about the benefits of therapy dogs:


I could not find very much in the research literature about "therapy cats"--but I think having a pet cat can be therapeutic.

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