Dogs vs Cats: Which is better for the Mental Health of Seniors?
There is already a lot of data which has indicated that living with a pet dog is improves both psychological and physical health. The current global pandemic has shifted the spotlight onto whether pets improve the welfare of older adults who are now more socially isolated than ever. Unfortunately there is a long history of studies which indicate that social isolation in later life is linked to various adverse psychological and health-related outcomes, such as cardiovascular impairment, chronic pain, loneliness, and depression.
A number of writers, especially those in the popular press, have suggested that pet ownership is one way to alleviate the negative effects of social isolation. However if you scan the media there is a tendency to suggest that any pet, whether dog, cat, hamster, bird or even fish, might fill the need for companionship and thus help to offset deterioration in mental health. However there have been some hints that dogs may be most beneficial animal psychologically.
A team of Japanese researchers headed by Tomoko Ikeuchi from the Human Care Research Team at the Tokyo Metropolitan Institute of Gerontology, decided to see what the real effect of pet ownership was on the psychological health of both socially isolated and non-isolated seniors. In the process they decided to see what the actual benefits were for those seniors who owned either one of the two most popular pets, a dog versus a cat. This was a big study involving 9,856 seniors ranging in age from 65 to 84 years of age. All of these individuals lived in the community and were not disabled, so that they did not require help caring for their pet.
The psychological health of these older adults was assessed using the World Health Organization Five Well-Being Index which looks at the degree of positive well-being of the individuals during the past two weeks. So items include: (1) I have felt cheerful and in good spirits, (2) I have felt calm and relaxed, (3) I have felt active and vigorous, (4) I woke up feeling fresh and rested, and (5) My daily life has been filled with things that interest me. Obviously in a survey like this higher scores are associated with a more positive mental state.
The social isolation of the participants was measured using another survey which included questions such as: “How often do you see or go out with your friends or neighbors,” “How often do you talk to your friends or neighbors by phone,” “How often do you talk to your family members or relatives who do not live with you,” and “How often do you talk to your family members or relatives who do not live with you by phone.”
The statistical analyses involved a rather complex logistic procedure, but we can strip down the main results to a few major findings. As expected the psychological health of socially isolated individuals was lower than that of non-socially isolated individuals. The individuals who are most vulnerable to suffering from negative psychological effects were those who were socially isolated and did not now or never had owned a dog. In comparison dog owners were only half as likely to report a negative psychological status.
The authors summarize their results by saying, “After adjusting for demographic and potential confounders of age, sex, income level, and living arrangements, socially isolated current or past dog owners had better psychological health than socially isolated individuals who were never dog owners. However, there was no such difference observed among current or past cat owners.”
These results are important because it represents the largest single sample measuring the benefits of pet ownership for seniors that we have to date.
The take away message seems to be that in this time of pandemic, if older adults find themselves forced into social isolation one readily available and the effective treatment to prevent deterioration of their psychological health might be to simply introduce a pet dog into their home.