By Chris Blazina PhD
A recent study published in 2019 found that dog ownership was associated with a 24-percent reduced risk of death from any medical cause among the general public1. It also found a 33 percent lower risk of death among heart attack survivors at the one-year post surgery mark. The year following heart surgery is considered a crucial time period for adjustment. Known causes for post heart attack mortality include increased risk of depression and social isolation. This recent study is in keeping with what the field of human-animal interaction sometimes refers to “pet effect.” The pet effect suggests that the bond we share with animal companions buffers us humans from psychological and physical ailments. The notion that pet ownership is associated with positive effects is controversial among some professionals citing poor research quality among published studies as well as a type of media hype among news outlets that may cherry pick findings or even unintentionally distort the magnitude of how pets impact us for the better. After all, most people love their pets and there is something about backing our furry friends by offering high praise for how they touch our lives.
I have considered the pet effect now for several years. Part of motivation is derived from the psychotherapy patients I work with as a psychologist. There are various stereotypes of the typical pet enthusiast as a type of loner or curmudgeon that shows their love of dogs by putting paw print stickers on the backs of their cars, or spends countless hours at the local dog park knowing the names of all the dogs but none of the people. In reality pet people that are deeply bonded to their animal companions come in all type of shapes and sizes. Maybe the one constant is being deeply touched by the human-animal bond. Sometimes that is in lieu of other similar emotional ties with human beings and in other circumstances, four legged friends are another important part of an already well-developed social network.
In either case, my thinking about the pet effect has changed somewhat recently. Previously, when I would hear or read about my colleagues that criticized the positive impact animal companions have on us, I would find myself fuming. All types of scenarios would pop into mind as counter arguments. I would think they must not be pet lovers; or these folks are not seeing the bigger picture of how pets impact us. Part of the change in my perspective occurred as the research about the pet effect took on a new meaning beyond the words on a printed page. In December 2019, a few days before Christmas I had a series of heart attacks. The surgeon performing the procedure that cleared up a 100% blockage in one of my arteries referred to my current status- being alive- as a “Christmas Miracle.”
It seems important to pause here for a moment in order to consider the pet effect from an animal companion’s perspective. In this case, Tex my recently adopted Border Collie. I sometimes call him “ghost dog” named as such for his ability to vanish when unfamiliar people arrive at my home. In either case, I am not sure that Tex knew what he was signing up for when I brought him home earlier the same year. Based on that earlier cited research about post heart attack survival rates and pet ownership, does he realize the gravity of ‘his’ responsibility to keep me going? Maybe he is not even aware of it. But I am. Not in the way that I think he will magically help me make it to a clean one-year post surgery follow up. Instead I think back to the nearly unceasing string of bonds with animal companions since I was a boy. In retrospect even the deepest bond with my dogs did not provide a 100% firewall against the slings and arrows of life. Instead I realize asking the pet effect question in its current form may not be the best or most accurate notion when considering the bond with animal companions. Yes, it is likely that if we perceive animal companions as a form of emotional support the bond will help us in some real way; the way that research suggesting social support is part and parcel for our everyday well-being. However, a different set of inquires focuses not upon if pets protect us like emotional Kevlar but does our relationship with them give our lives meaning and purpose. Pets are not a type of happy pill that when taken twice a day in the prescribed dose guarantee that we will not have ups and downs. In fact, thinking about the course of the 14 to 16 years I have spent in each of my dog’s lives, there has been built in challenges into our connection; the tough puppy years, transitions with new people and pets in our lives; and of course, saying goodbye to a trusted friend. The revised pet effect I am suggesting is not a means to an end; in this case how the presence of an animal companion is purposely linked to our never-ending happiness. Rather our bond not only gives us company when we face inevitabilities of life but their presence adds to the meaning of shared experiences. So, here is to my animal companions in celebration of the positive impact they have had and will continue to have in my life.
Chris Blazina PhD is a psychologist practicing in Albuquerque. He is also a retired professor having published seven books including, “When Man Meets Dog” which was awarded the National Indie Excellence Award for Men’s Health. He has been interviewed on various radio stations across the United States, Canada, and Australia. www.chrisblazinaphd.com
1. Mubanga M, Byberg L, Egenvall A, & Ingelsson (2019). Dog Ownership and Survival After a Major Cardiovascular Event: A Register-Based Prospective Study. E. Circ Cardiovasc Qual Outcomes. Oct;12(10).