SANTA MONICA, Calif. — Running counter to previous research, having a pet in the home is not linked to improved mental or physical health in kids, a new study finds.
Researchers at RAND Corporation analyzed data collected on more than 5,200 children who resided in California, about 3,000 of whom lived in households without a cat or dog.
These self-reported responses, which were taken from the 2003 California Health Interview Survey, showed that adolescents who lived in pet-owning households derived a number of health-related benefits — at least ostensibly.
Children living in households that had a cat or dog, for example, were more likely to be physically active, obedient, and in better overall health.
The catch, however, was that these benefits all but disappeared once other variables associated with the likelihood of pet ownership and a child’s health were taken into account. The researchers’ model to test whether the relationship was one of causation or correlation tested over 100 variables, including language skills, family income, and a family’s type of residence.
“We could not find evidence that children from families with dogs or cats are better off either in terms of their mental wellbeing or their physical health,” says Layla Parast, a co-author of the study and a statistician at RAND, in a news release.
RAND believes that its team’s latest findings — which they say is the largest-ever study of its type — hold increased validity over those of older inquiries, as their sample size was much larger.
Future research could look into the effects of pet ownership in the long-term, along with how it may play out in more experimental settings.
An ideal experiment would follow randomly-selected families, about half of whom are provided pets, for a period of 10 to 15 years, to see if health outcomes change, the researchers say.
However, “such a study would likely be too costly and/or infeasible to implement, and I’m afraid it’s not likely to be funded by anybody,” acknowledges Layla Parast, one of the study’s co-authors.
While there are certainly no empirical downsides to owning a pet (though the study did find that children with pets were more likely to have ADD/ADHD), their jury is out on what children can gain.
The full study was published in the journal Anthrozoos.