Cats Are Not Medicine

Kids who grow up in homes with cats are much less likely to have behavioral issues than kids who grow up in homes without cats.

This is according to a divisive statistical analysis thrust upon the world this week by scientists at the RAND corporation. Pro-pet research findings like this have been piling up since the 1980s. The results have ranged from less heart disease among pet owners to better rates of survival after heart attacks to a reduced risk of asthma and allergic rhinitis among kids who had been exposed to pet allergens as infants.

Over the decades there has come to be a sort of implicit consensus that pet ownership had benefits for human health. That is, it seemed that these correlations weren’t coincidental. In a 2005 literature review in the journal BMJ, a team of clinicians concluded it’s likely that “pet ownership itself is the primary cause of the reported benefits,” since “no studies have found significant social or economic differences between people who do or do not have pets that would adequately explain [these] differences in health.”

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It is with sincere regret that I report that this week’s RAND cat-health study did exactly that. The cat owners appeared healthier than people without pets, but the difference went away when the researchers factored in that the cat owners were likely to be healthy for other reasons, mostly bearing on socioeconomic status.

Even the researchers didn’t want to find what they found. Layla Parast, a Harvard-trained biostatician who does health analyses at the RAND corporation, approached the study with her colleagues fully expecting to see health benefits. The group “loves pets,” Parast insisted, as I probed for any evidence of anti-pet bias. She personally grew up with a dog and a cat, she claims.

“I’ve talked to a lot of friends of mine whose reaction was like yours and mine: No! This can’t be true. What kind of ‘science’ are you doing?”

“It was definitely our hypothesis that we’d find benefits. We assumed it would be a very straightforward thing to show.”

But no. The findings rather turned her understanding of the subject into a tangle of uncertainty. On Monday, the headline on RAND’s site was, “Largest-Ever Study of Pets and Kids’ Health Finds No Link; Findings Dispute Widely Held Beliefs About Positive Effects of Pet Ownership.”

Parast has already experienced social repercussions. “I’ve talked to a lot of friends…

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