Chapter 14: Zoo(mer)ology

Puppies to Guppies: Are pets the answer to aging?

Of the difference dogs and cats, Mark Twain is rumoured to have said:  “If you save a dog from impoverishment and feed and care for it, it will think that you’re God. If you do the same for a cat, it will think that it’s God.” On the other hand, Winston Churchill held, “A cat will look down to a man, a dog will look up to a man but a pig will look you straight in the eye and see his equal.”

I am not, strictly speaking, a “pet person.” I never grew up with any in my parents’ home nor do I have any in my house now. I am, rather, a son of the Urban Jungle, more familiar with asphalt and concrete than nature and wildlife. Add to this my natural skepticism about cure-all claims, and I’m probably the last person you’d expect to be touting the benefits of animal companionship for the aging demographic. But a talk by psychologist and dog expert Stanley Coren at last year’s CARP Conference and Convention plus a recent spate of newspaper articles citing some truly astounding research have got me seeing the four-legged universe in a different way. I may not be ready to run out and buy a pet yet, but I’m starting to see that, given the evidence at hand, owning a pet seems to make a surprising amount of sense for people of Zoomer vintage.

Apparently, Pet Owners live longer; and not just the Pet Owners you’d expect to live longer — the healthy ones — but even Owners at risk. One of the most famous studies done in the pet-human field was conducted by Dr. Erika Friedmann of Brooklyn College, who followed a group of heart attack victims for a year after they suffered their attacks. She found that the single most important factor in their survival (after the severity of the heart damage, of course) was whether or not the patients had pets. “It was a mortality pattern that stunned us,” wrote Dr. James Lynch, one of Friedmann’s co-researchers. Pet Owners in general (any animal) were four times more likely to be alive a year after suffering an attack than pet-less patients; and dog owners were eight times more likely. If that statistic isn’t mind-boggling enough, other studies have shown that owning a pet can significantly lower blood pressure (to the point where previously hypertensive people can go off their medication); increase levels of “well-being” hormones  like beta endorphin and dopamine; and decrease levels of cortisol, the stress hormone (suggesting a new way to treat clinically depressed people without medication). Older Pet Owners are in significantly better physical condition than their pet-less peers, have lower cholesterol levels, less trouble falling asleep and visit the doctor less often.

Another pet-related study asked married people to do mental arithmetic problems in four different situations: alone, with their spouse, with their pet or with their spouse and pet. The result: subjects made the fewest mistakes when they were with their pets alone, the most with their spouses alone. Little wonder when you consider that almost twice as many people report loving their pets as loving their spouses.

When I first read this research as a whole, though, my skeptic’s reflex was: why?  How is it that Fido and Ginger have such remarkable therapeutic ability to make people, particularly older people, healthier and happier? Lynch’s theory goes that in primitive times, when we were stressed, it was usually because something — say, a sabre-tooth tiger — was going to eat us. This created an evolutionarily reaction known as the fight-or-flight response, which was regulated by the autonomic nervous system. But while sabre-tooth tigers have disappeared, the fight-or-flight response has not, claims Lynch. Our bodies still respond to far less critical stresses — a traffic jam, an argument — as though life and death were at stake. This misguided fight-or-flight response not only wears our bodies down, it can also make us withdraw from others and become loners and lonely. James Lynch calls this replacing the physiology of inclusion with the physiology of exclusion. By “exclusion,” he means the kind of social isolation that can lead to premature disease and death.

Enter pets. Not only are domestic animals very good at drawing people out of themselves and their seclusion, they also seem to moderate the fight-or-flight response into a more appropriate reaction that doesn’t see minor obstacles as mortal threats.  By providing their own form of unconditional love, by being inordinately happy to see us at the end of the day or at the crack of dawn (not to mention, I’m told, their fondness for certain parts of our anatomy), pets re-establish the physiology of inclusion. That’s why so many nursing homes encourage visitors to bring animals with them when they visit.

Here, though, is where I start having some reservations about the claims made for Pet Ownership. Are pets the only antidote for the stress caused by the fight-or-flight response? Isn’t that what babies and grandchildren are for? If you have a loving partner and tons of offspring and grandchildren who visit you regularly or if you have a million friends you engage with, are you still lonely and prone to social isolation without a pet? More and more nursing and retirement homes are finding that establishing daycare centres in their facilities changes residents’ quality of life. Anyone who has seen really elderly people, particularly those suffering from dementia, react to small children knows how captivated and delighted they are. Besides, don’t pets that age along with their owners sooner or later become a financial and heartbreaking burden?

And it’s true; not every pet study done has been wholly positive. One expert who dares to point this out is Hal Herzog, a psychology professor at Western Carolina University and author of Some We Love, Some We Hate, Some We Eat: Why It’s So Hard to Think Straight About Animals. In a New York Times article, Herzog writes that he has a “stack of articles in his office supporting the hypothesis that pets are healthy for us.” But he claims to have another stack, almost as thick, arguing that the health benefits of pets aren’t long-term and that pets can even have a negative impact on our physical and psychological well-being. In the article, Herzog cites a recent American survey that says that living with a pet didn’t make people any happier, an Australian study that didn’t find any evidence of increased lifespan for Pet Owners and a Dutch study that couldn’t find any pet effect at all, positive or negative. Even more damning, he notes that in 2006, a group of Finnish epidemiologists found that people who owned pets actually had higher incidences of “sciatica, kidney disease, arthritis, migraines, panic attacks, high blood pressure and depression.”

In addition, there’s the sad conundrum that while it’s unusual for an older person to survive a child, it’s far more common to survive a pet. The trauma of losing a beloved animal companion is nothing to be taken lightly, as many people reading this will know. And in the instances where we do outlive our pets, some of us manage to create traumas — and scandals — of a different sort. The late New York hotel magnate and Queen of Mean, Leona Helmsley, on her death in 2007, left $12 million to her white Maltese, Trouble (including $100,000 a year for full-time security and $8,000 per annum for grooming). On the other hand, a pet may well treat you better than your own ungrateful spawn; something commonplace enough for China to consider a new law that imposes financial penalties, even jail, for children who neglect or fail to visit their parents.

Still, even with all these caveats, it’s difficult to argue with the pet lobby. Even if there’s only a 50 per cent chance that domestic animals do what their boosters say they can, why wouldn’t a prudent senior head for the nearest pet shop, kennel or animal shelter just in case? Even People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals sympathizers, who might be inclined to see the pet-human equation as animal exploitation, will be interested to know that the benefit is reciprocal. Two decades before James J. Lynch helped demonstrate that people could lower their blood pressure by stroking dogs, he showed that the blood pressure of dogs dropped significantly when people stroked them. The same held for horses and other tame animals. Not only are pets good for us; we are good for pets.

Animals bring joy, hilarity, love, friendship, comfort and relaxation into people’s lives. They bring people closer to nature, take them out of themselves and bring emotional balance. If you are lucky enough to have a healthy and happy pet that you can afford and have the time to care for properly, it seems it will have a very positive effect on your mental and physical health. My conclusion is that it’s important for one’s mental health to take responsibility for and nurture another living creature.

And for those of you who are neither dog nor cat nor horse nor pig nor hamster nor budgie people, I say never fear! You, too, can partake painlessly of the benefits of pets in the home. The answer? Fish. Scientists have shown that simply watching fish swim in an aquarium can lower your stress levels even more than transcendental meditation. I know this to be true because I have a confession to make: I actually do have part-time “pets” myself — goldfish. In the summer, in a pond in my garden, there is a school of koi, large goldfish I like to feed and watch, and watch as they watch me. I get some of my best ideas doing this. Turns out, goldfish are part of a larger genus: CARP.

Moses’ Zoomer Philosophy — which launched in ZOOMER Magazine in October 2009 — is a series of monthly essays on age and aging, and the secrets and the science to living better, longer, healthier and happier lives. The first volume of his collection is now available in e-book format on the Kobo Books website.  Click here for more information.