Do Pets Really Improve the Health of Older Adults?

June 15, 2018
Kerry Lengyel

With study after study boasting the plethora benefits of companion animal ownership, it can be hard to believe otherwise. But investigators are seeking to find whether this widespread belief is, in fact, true or false.

Studies have shown that pet ownership has significant benefits on both the physical and emotional health of humans, particularly older adults. But 2 researchers from Florida State University’s Institute for Successful Longevity are searching for the truth behind this claim.

“I just saw how messy the research was. It was all these publications saying how amazing the benefits are to having pets whereas many studies didn’t show that,” said Natalie Sachs-Ericsson, PhD, a scientist in the Department of Psychology at Florida State University. “In fact, [studies] seemed to show there were negative effects to having companion animals.”

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With the help of a $50,000 grant provided by the Gerontological Society of America (GSA), in collaboration with Mars Petcare and the Waltham Centre for Pet Nutrition, Dr. Sachs-Ericsson and Dawn Carr, PhD, MGS, assistant professor of sociology at Florida State University, are setting out to determine the cause of the discrepancies.

Identifying Faults of Previous Research

Dr. Sachs-Ericsson said many of the studies they’ve investigated had methodologic limitations, but the issue that stuck with them the most were the reasons why study participants chose to own pets.

People make the conscious decision whether or not to own a pet, Dr. Sachs-Ericsson said. “And the reason that drives someone to have a companion animal may be related to subsequent life outcomes," she continued.

The first phase of their study will be an extensive review of current literature to identify selection factors found in previous research comparing companion animal owners with nonowners.

Using the Health and Retirement Survey

Based on those selection factors, statistical techniques will then be applied to results from the Health and Retirement Survey (HRS)—a long-term study of more than 20,000 individuals 50 years of age or older—to form typologies of those who do and don‘t own companion animals.

Specifically, they will use the HRS 2012 data set, which looked at companion animals.

“We can look at people in 2012, what their levels of functioning were, [their] enjoyment, anxiety, depressive symptoms, social relationships,” Dr. Sachs-Ericsson said, “and then follow them—because it’s longitudinal data over time—and see what influence having companion animals seemed to have once we figure out the selection factors.”

Demographic, psychological, and health factors will be examined for both pet owners and nonowners, as well as:

  • For pet owners: type and number of pets; interactions with their pets
  • For nonowners: past ownership of pets; current interactions with other pets

Then, Dr. Sachs-Ericsson and Dr. Carr will test their hypothesis that a companion animal is beneficial to health in older people, particularly those who are socially isolated and experience a major loss—such as the death of their spouse.

“If you think about trying to understand the benefits of companion animals and older adults, you’d most likely see the biggest effect on those who are the most vulnerable,” Dr. Sachs-Ericsson said.

In sum, the researchers will attempt to:

  • Determine whether and in what ways human social processes are involved in shaping the relationship between companion animals and human health.
  • Examine the influence of companion animals on health among socially isolated older adults relative to socially integrated older adults who experience a major social loss.
  • Contribute to a theoretical framework outlining the relationships between human-animal interaction among older adults and human health.

The end goal is to generate a model that will help researchers better understand how social context shapes the relevance of companion animals for a range of health problems later in life, particularly for vulnerable older adults.

“I think a lot of people who applied for the GSA grant came from programs that have focused on human-animal interaction research,” Dr. Sachs-Ericsson said. “Maybe the fact that we came from the field of gerontology and we had maybe sort of a different kind of take on things, that almost gave us a bit of an edge to bring a different perspective to the research.”