Can Having a Pet Promote Better Health for Your Family?

You wonder whether installing a rabbit hutch, or cute-as pot-bellied pig, or gambolling pup at home guarantees better health for the family. The overwhelming evidence, says “maybe”.

There’s plenty of scientific research  that shows the benefits of pets in clinical settings, known as animal-assisted therapy, such as nursing homes and crisis centres (after natural disasters and school massacres), or in community settings among the aged, infirmed, disabled and those with psychiatric issues. But in the family home, pets can be a mixed blessing, depending on the personalities and family circumstances.


Science says there are fabulous health benefits available to families who engage in pet-ship.

Allergy-resistant kids: Children who grow up with furry siblings are likely to have less allergies and asthma, according to James Gern, a paediatrician from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, whose paper was published in the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology. (Our dogs and cat didn’t spare me chronic eczema, but I wouldn’t have swapped a single bed crammed with furry family for anything).

Less doctor days: Dr James Serpell’s research “Beneficial Effects of Pet Ownership on some aspects of Human Health” (Journal of Royal Society of Medicine, 1992) apparently shows that people with pets typically visit the doctor less, and use less medication.

Happy hormones: Other studies say that stroking pets or just observing fish gliding around the aquarium can lower blood pressure and increase the feel-good hormone, oxytocin. Watching dogs bound carefree and waggy in a social frenzy at the park sure makes my day.

Fitter, healthier families: In a 10-month study, Dr Serpell, who also founded the Companion Animal Research Group at Cambridge University, found that people with pets had fewer ailments, headaches, colds and hayfever. Of course, whoever walks the dog wins the fitness badge too.

Mental health: Pets also make excellent listeners and silent counsellors, according to “Children and their Pets” research (Rost, D. H. and Hartmann, A., 1994), when Mum and Dad are ready to implode from life’s pressures.

Caring for pets also develops children’s sense of responsibility and mutual trust. I trusted my waddling gold Labrador, Candy, on a ‘road trip’ to Nan’s house.  I was seven, it was my first escape attempt; we got nabbed half-way.

There’s research that says pets lessen anxiety and boost immunity and make us generally better beings, but I like this often-quoted US survey of pet-owning families (Poresky, R.H., & Hendrix, C., 1990, “Differential Effects of Pet Presence and Pet-Bonding on Young Children”, Psychological Reports)  which says that most of the families surveyed were happier and having more fun after pets entered the roost.



Unhappy home?

In the face of his ailing marriage and sneery, responsibility-averse teenagers, a friend of mine bought a pedigree pup to uplift the mood. The dog’s incessant barking in his new unhappy home alienated the neighbours and cost them thousands of dollars in behavioural training. No score there.

Too busy to care?

Plenty of dual-income families are too busy to spend quality patting, walking or play time with their pets, and then explode because the garden looks like a playground for bulldozers and the indoors wreaks of snappy cat urine. Pets will act up or act out when they’re unhappy.

The finger-pointing family

Families who shirk responsibility for general pet duties undoubtedly have more arguments than those who are truly pet-willing-and-ready. My care-giver sister turns gargoyle at the mention of each new pet because, guess who’s left to pick up the poo, de-hair the house, feed/wash/water/vaccinate/play with the animal once Arrival Week is over?

Oops, I meant that one

Anxiety-inducing pets abound if you’re taking pot luck at an animal shelter – the whipped dog, the claw-happy cat, or the finger-puncturing ferret. Some need a lotta love and quality time dedicated to their rehabilitation. And someone needs to care. The dumping of animals in Australia is shameful, with more than 14 million cats and dogs destroyed since World War II, according to RSPCA statistics.  


Oscar the therapy cat:  lives in Steere House Nursing and Rehabilitation Center, Rhode Island. He predicts the impending death of terminally ill patients (so far, about 50!) and sits with them quietly until they pass over.

Dewey the Library cat: Ginger boy Dewey was dumped in the returns draw of the library on a freezing morning in small town Spencer, Iowa. His lounging, lap-happy presence boosted library membership by thousands. He cared for the town’s children, elderly and disenfranchised, and became known world-wide for his duties to humankind.