The marketing departments of the $70-billion-a-year pet products industry are working overtime these days to convince you that pet ownership is the key to human health and happiness. (See, for example, The Pet Effect campaign developed by the industry-funded Human-Animal Bond Research Institute). In reality, however, the scientific evidence that pets are good for people is decidedly mixed. Some studies have indeed found pet owners are better off. But the corporate PR departments and the media conveniently ignore studies that report pet-owners are more susceptible to a host of maladies. These include hypertension, anxiety, depression, insomnia, gastric ulcers, migraine headaches, and obesity. And I suspect the pet food industry is not going to send out press releases on three recent studies that link pet ownership to cancer death rates.
The studies were conducted by a research group headed by Dr. Jian Zhang, an epidemiologist in the College of Public Health at Georgia Southern University. The three papers were based on data collected as part of the Center for Disease Control's National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey. Referred to as “NHANES,” this is a longitudinal study of the health and well-being of Americans that has been going on since the 1950s. The cancer research was based on data gathered during Phase III of the study which began in 1988. Baseline medical and socio-demographic information was collected during in-home interviews with 13,725 individuals who were representative of the American population. There were equal numbers of men and women: 75% of the subjects were White, 11% were Black and 5% were Latino.