Cuddly Puppies and Better Health – a No Brainer, Right?

Sometimes the results that researchers obtain are as confounding as the variables they seek to untangle. Such is the case in a recent study done by scientists from the RAND corporation, involving Biostats alumna Layla Parast, PhD ’12, who specializes in studying health behaviors that aren’t amenable to randomized controlled trials.

Like most people, Parast fully expected to see health benefits associated with pet ownership. However, results from a recent study involving data from more than 5,000 households, in which Parast’s team analyzed measures of children’s health and then compared children in households with and without cats, left even the researchers dismayed.

While the children with cats tended to have better general health, once the scientists controlled for confounding variables, they had to report that there was “no evidence for a beneficial effect of pet ownership for child health”. Rather, pet ownership was found to serve as a signifier rather than a driver of the sort of life that leads to better health.

There is hope yet for animal lovers. While the study took a cross-sectional approach, researchers might obtain more nuanced findings with a cohort study, which analyzes longitudinal data over time. “That would be great” says Parast – “It would be great to have a reason to hand out cuddly puppies to everyone who needs better health”.