Contrary to popular belief, having a dog or cat in the home does not improve the mental or physical health of children, according to a new RAND Corp. study.
The findings are from the largest-ever study to explore the notion that pets can improve children's health by increasing physical activity and improving young people's empathy skills.
Unlike earlier smaller studies on the topic, the RAND work used advanced statistical tools to control for multiple factors that could contribute to a child's well-being other than pet ownership, such as belonging to a family that has higher income or living in a more affluent setting. The results were published online by the journal Anthrozoos.
"We could not find evidence that children from families with dogs or cats are better off either in terms of their mental well-being or their physical health," said Layla Parast, a co-author of the study and a statistician at RAND, a nonprofit research organization. "Everyone on the research team was surprised; we all have or grew up with dogs and cats. We had essentially assumed from our own personal experiences that there was a connection."
The study analyzed information from more than 2,200 children who lived in pet-owning households in California and compared them to about 3,000 households without a dog or cat. The information was collected as a part of the 2003 "California Health Interview Survey," an annual survey that, for one year, also asked participants about whether they had pets, along with an array of other health questions.
Researchers did find that children from pet-owning families tended to have better general health, have slightly higher weight and are more likely to be physically active compared to children whose families do not have pets. In addition, children who have pets are more likely to have attention deficit disorder/attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, are more likely to be obedient and are less likely to have parents concerned about their child's feelings, mood, behavior and learning ability.
However, when researchers adjusted the findings to account for other variables that might be associated with both the likelihood that a family has a pet and the child's health, the association between pet ownership and better health disappeared. Overall, researchers considered more than 100 variables in adjusting their model of pet ownership and health, including family income, language skills and type of family housing.
While many previous studies have suggested a link between pet ownership and better emotional and physical health, RAND researchers said their analysis has more credibility because it analyzed a larger sample than previous efforts.
The researchers said future studies could examine associations involving pet ownership over longer periods of time and in more experimental settings.