Exercise as it relates to Disease/The 'Pet Effect' - Can Owning a Pet Improve your Adolescent's Health and Wellbeing?
This is an analysis of the journal article “Pet ownership and adolescent health: cross-sectional population study ” by Mathers et al (2010).
Research shows that 63% of Australia’s 7.5 million households own a pet. With 38% owning a dog, 25% owning a cat and 53% owning both a dog and cat. Not all research has demonstrated positive effects of pet ownership on health, and particularly, little is known about the relationship between health and pets in adolescents.
Evidence suggests that adult pet owners experience improved physical, mental and emotional health. This translates into fewer doctor visits, less medication, less sleeping difficulties, fewer cholesterol and heart problems, and, better survival rates after a heart attack. Emotional benefits include less mental stress, less loneliness and depression, and, a higher self-esteem. Previous research has also found that adult pet owners have a higher level of physical activity compared to non-pet owners.
Identifying factors from everyday life that might increase healthy behaviours are especially relevant to public health, as they might lead to a lower risk of cardiovascular disease and other chronic conditions, which are the leading causes of death and health care expenditures.
The potential benefits of pet ownership on health are of immense relevance to today’s adolescents as the proportion of overweight and obese adolescents has reached epidemic levels and levels of sedentary behaviour far exceed their recommendations.
Where was the research from?
Mathers et al from the Centre for Community Child Health at the Royal Children’s Hospital lead and conducted this research throughout Victoria, Australia, focusing on a school-based population in years 8 to 11. The final study was published in the Journal of Paediatrics and Child Health. Other author contributions include:
• Murdoch Childrens Research Institute,
• McCaughey Centre, School of Population Health,
• Department of Pediatrics, The University of Melbourne, and,
• Nutritional Physiology Research Centre, University of South Australia.
What kind of research was this?
This was a cross-sectional population study, involving the use of a written questionnaire, computerized activity diary days, and measurements such as height, weight and blood pressure. The sample comprised of adolescents, aged between 13 and 20 years old, in the third wave of a population-representative longitudinal study from 2005, the Health of Young Victorians Study (HOYVS). The Australian National Health & Medical Research Council (NHRMC) Project Grant funded this study.
What did the research involve?
One or two of the researchers visited each adolescent at school or home on two occasions wherever possible. At the first visit, adolescents completed a written questionnaire and 1-2 computerised activity diary days (MARCA). Their height, weight and blood pressure were also measured and recorded at this time. Participants over the age of 18 were classified as non-overweight, overweight or obese according to the age- and sex-specific criteria for BMI.
In the second visit, the adolescent completed further days of the activity diary. If applicable, adolescents reported whether they had in their households any pet(s), cat(s), dog(s), or any other pet(s), and the number of each.
|Multimedia Activity Recall for Children and Adolescents (MARCA)||Used to determine an overall daily physical activity level.|
|Health Status||Assessed physical, emotional, social and school functioning.|
|Quality of Life||Assessed physical wellbeing, psychological wellbeing, moods and emotions, self-perception, bullying, and, financial resources.|
What were the basic results?
Most adolescents (88.7%) reported having a pet in their household. The most prevalent was dog ownership (71.9%), followed by cats (41.4%), and, a much smaller number owned horses. Of these, 75.1% reported no activity involving pets over the surveyed days.
Health outcomes, average daily physical activity level and BMI status were not associated with owning a pet. 77.6% of respondents reported a daily average of 0 minutes of daily time spent caring for or playing with their pet(s). It can therefore be concluded that neither owning a pet nor spending time caring for or playing with a pet was related, positively or negatively, to adolescent health or wellbeing.
What conclusions should be taken away from this research?
Ownership of a pet could result in a cascade or synergy of various health outcomes and can acquire health benefits in some situations, but it is less clear exactly how. In reality, benefits gained may be highly dependent on the time and/or quality of the attachment with the pet. Therefore, any health related benefits are most likely gained by the direct carer of the pet, rather than a member of the household. As such, it would be premature to embark on a pet ownership strategy as an approach to combat poor mental health and physical inactivity in adolescents.
Research has shown that pet ownership can be an effective intervention strategy to combat physical inactivity and all its associated problems within an adult population. Although, it remains possible that higher levels of pet interaction than seen in this study would be associated with health and other benefits in adolescents due to its maximum of only four recall survey days. Also, these findings may not apply to other age groups with a typically higher level of interaction with their pets. Different results may be obtained with younger children, adults, or even in the elderly.
If pet ownership were shown to be beneficial, and the setting and context supportive, then this strategy may help achieve helpful behaviour changes to address health issues within adolescents. Although, in order for this intervention to be successful, individuals need to be willing to accept the responsibility and obligation of owning a pet, along with taking into consideration the pets health, wellbeing and need for exercise. For more accurate results, including more information on the pet, such as its age, breed, health status, or required activity levels, may provide more accurate results regarding physical activity. Different pets, or even breeds, may require different levels of care and/or physical activity.
Future research may include the level of attachment to the pet, and/or, who is the primary caregiver of the pet. It may be adults or adolescents who are less attached to their pets, or who are not the primary caregiver, that are less likely to care for, play with their pet, or take it for a walk and experience this health gain.
For further information regarding the potential benefits of pet ownership in other populations, simply click on the links below.
What are the health benefits of pet ownership?
- Mathers M, Canterford L, Olds T, Waters E, Wade M. Pet ownership and adolescent health: Cross-sectional population study. Journal of Paediatrics and Child Health. 2010 Mar 18: 729-735.
- Utz RL. Walking the Dog: The Effect of Pet Ownership on Human Health and Human Behaviours. Social Indicators Research. 2013 Mar 16; 166: 327-339.
- Smith B. ‘The pet effect’: Health related aspects of companion animal ownership. Australian Family Physician. 2012 Jun; 41(6): 439-442.