Notes on Animal Health, April 2024: Pets are Good for Us, but are We Good for our Pets?

Cindy Cole, DVM, PhD, DACVCP

Cindy Cole, DVM, PhD, DACVCP

April 19, 2024

Many of us know instinctually that our pets are good for us. Now there is a growing body of evidence to support that belief. One recent study found that pet owners get more exercise and have better social interactions compared to their non-pet-owning counterparts. Another study demonstrated that following a major cardiovascular event, dog owners had better outcomes than non-dog owners, while a third study found pet owners experience less loneliness. So, science is now confirming that pets are good for people.

But are people good for pets? We certainly can be. The results of a recent study demonstrated that when children and dogs interacted, the stress hormone cortisol was decreased in both species, meaning humans and dogs both benefited from the interaction. In a similar manner, a recent study found that cats can form close emotional attachments to their owners, but also confirmed that the cat-owner bond can be quite complex. However, not all human-animal interactions are positive for the pets. Nervous owners and those struggling with mental health issues, according to recent research,  were more likely to have anxious pets. In addition, in the wake of a wave of pet adoptions during the COVID-19 pandemic, many animal shelters now report a significant increase in pet surrenders. In one study, the most common reasons owners gave for relinquishing or rehoming a pet were financial limitations, owner health issues, and pet behavioral problems. This troubling trend begs the question, what can we do, before we get a pet, to increase the chances that this new addition to our family will be a long-term success?

First, we should acknowledge that pet ownership is a privilege, which brings with it significant obligations. Pets don’t have a say in which household or under what conditions they live. Therefore, people should consider their lifestyle, economic situation, and willingness to commit to caring for a pet for its lifetime before they become a pet owner. For example, you may love Border Collies, but if you live in an apartment and work outside the home eight hours a day, that high energy, extremely intelligent breed is likely to become frustrated and bored, which may result in destructive behaviors.

What if you have always wanted an Alaskan Malamute or Siberian Husky but you live in Phoenix? Is it fair to a dog bred for the cold to be asked to live in such a hot environment? A recent study evaluating owners’ assessments of the heat sensitivity of their Siberian Huskies’ living in Brazil found that many owners did not recognize common signs of heat stress. For example, while most recognized panting as a sign, many did not know that other behaviors, such as the dogs placing their paws in water and lying in water, which facilitates the dissipation of body heat by conduction and evaporation, were also signs of overheating. However, a 2022 study in the United Kingdom found that brachycephalic breeds, such as the French Bulldog and English Bull Terrier, were most at risk of developing heat-related illness. While the results of these studies demonstrate that heat stress in dogs is not breed-specific, but rather multifactorial, the broader take-home message is the need for owner education around not only heat stress, but dog health and welfare issues in general.

Cats would appear to present fewer conundrums, but cat ownership is not without its challenges. Some people believe cats should be free to roam outside, but that poses a threat to songbirds and other wildlife. According to the Cornell Lab, outdoor cats kill more birds than any other non-native threat. In addition, indoors may be a healthier environment for cats. One found that cats with outdoor access were 2.77 times more likely to be infected with parasites than indoor-only cats. There are, however, benefits to outdoor access for cats, including increased exercise and a decrease in negative behaviors, such as furniture scratching and aggression. Owners need to weigh the risks and benefits of outdoor access in relation to their own cats, but first they must appreciate what they are.

So how should one go about choosing a pet? Probably the first question to answer is dog, cat, or something else? If a dog is the answer, many dog food companies, such as Iams and Royal Canin, our portfolio company Good Dog, and the American Kennel Club have online quizzes that will recommend specific breeds. However, most of the quizzes focus on what an owner desires in a dog, not what type of dog would be best given their household situation. Therefore, perhaps a good place to start would be to think of your home from your dog’s perspective. Do you have the space for a large dog? Time for a high-energy dog? If a particular breed appeals to you, but doesn’t fit your lifestyle, perhaps you can find some of the traits you find so desirable in a different breed that is better suited to your circumstances. The important part is to consider what the dog needs, as well as what you want, so that you can both live your best lives.

Adopting a dog from a shelter is very appealing for many people, and is a wonderful option when we consider the pet overpopulation problem that plagues many parts of the United States. Many of the dogs in shelters looking for homes, however, are adult dogs. While mature dogs may have advantages, such as already being house-broken, they may also have behavioral issues that may need to be addressed. Many people prefer adopting a puppy, but they need to be prepared for all that raising a puppy entails, including housebreaking, training, and generally needing more time and attention than adults. In addition, it is notoriously difficult to determine which dogs breeds are actually in a mixed-breed dog without a DNA-based breed determination test, such as Wisdom Panel or Embark. These tests are typically done by owners once they have the puppy at home, which can be a bit late to be helpful. It can be very disconcerting to adopt a puppy you expect to grow to be a mid-sized dog, only to watch it turn into something much larger. So, if you adopt a puppy from a shelter, you will need to be prepared to adapt to whatever size and personality it grows into as an adult.

If a cat is your choice for a pet, there are also resources available to help you choose between a mixed breed or a purebred. As with dogs, some people prefer purebreds, because how they look and behave is fairly predictable. However, domestic short-haired and long-haired cats, the equivalent to mixed-breed dogs, can provide all the benefits of cat ownership, and there is some evidence that they are at less risk of developing a number of serious diseases.

Choosing to become a pet owner is a serious decision and it should not be undertaken lightly. But with forethought and a bit of self-reflection, the right pet can provide you with innumerable benefits to your health and welfare. The trick is to make sure it is a two-way street, good for the pet and good for you.

– Cindy Cole, DVM, PhD, DACVCP

First Five
First Five is our curated list of articles, studies, and publications.

1/ Those Amazing Noses
The dog’s amazing sense of smell has been used to man’s advantage for thousands of years. Dogs have been trained to detect everything from people trapped in an avalanche or collapsed building to certain types of cancer, COVID-19 and some infectious diseases. Most commonly, the dogs trained for these types of scent detection are purpose-bred and often spend years in training. A recent study, however, sought to determine whether the typical pet dog could also be trained for similar purposes. A charity, PADs for Parkinson’s, recruited twenty-three pet dogs of various breeds and attempted to train them to detect Parkinson’s Disease. Forty-three people, who had been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease and thirty-one volunteers with no known medical conditions provided sebum samples. After a training program lasting approximately eight months, the dogs identified the samples from someone with Parkinson’s disease with an average accuracy of 86%, and importantly, they didn’t respond to the healthy volunteers’ samples 89 percent of the time. The dog as a diagnostic tool is not bad.

2/ Animals and Eclipses
Researchers at North Carolina State University studied zoo animals’ reactions to the eclipse that crossed the U.S. in 2017. While the majority of observed animals, including gorillas, reacted as might be expected, by starting their nighttime activities, others reacted with what was interpreted as anxiety. Giraffes started running and baboons huddled in smaller groups and then also started running. It is possible that some of the observed behaviors were actually in response to how humans reacted to the eclipse, but the findings are consistent with previous studies of wild, free-ranging animals and domesticated pets that indicate they are cognizant of the change brought about by this unusual astronomical phenomenon.

3/ The Fate of the Wanderers
The State of the World’s Migratory Species Report, recently released by the United Nations, concludes that almost half of the migratory animals on a UN list of vulnerable species are seeing population declines, with approximately a quarter of them at risk of extinction. An international UN treaty, The Convention on Migratory Species, which went into effect in 1983, aimed to protect 1189 different species, because they regularly cross national borders during their migrations. The current report would indicate more needs to be done to protect these wandering creatures. Human activity is the biggest factor in the observed declines, with overfishing, pollution and habitat loss from deforestation and urbanization adding to the pressure of climate change.

4/ Fake Hero
In February 1908 The New York Times reported on a dog in Paris that was thought to be a hero for saving multiple children who had fallen into the Seine River. So many children were falling into the river that some devious criminal was suspected, but eventually, the dog was identified as the culprit. Whenever he saw children playing by the river, the clever Newfoundland would push them in and then rescue them so he could enjoy more of the succulent beefsteak treats he received as rewards for his rescues.

5/ A Military Cat
In July 1959, The Los Angeles Times reported on the birthday of Pooli, a cat who was taken aboard an attack transport vessel, the USS Fremont, by her owner in 1944. Together they saw action in the Marianas, the Palau group, the Philippines, and Iwo Jima. Reportedly, when battle stations rang, Pooli would head to the mailroom and curl up in a mailsack. At the time of the report, the 15-year-old Pooli was deaf, had only her front teeth, and spent most of her time sleeping on her owner’s front porch.

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