Who needs Prozac when you can have a dog or a cat? Study after study has demonstrated dogs are good for us. There’s lots of evidence that says living with dogs does improve health by decreasing blood pressure and adjusting neuro-chemical balance in the brain to help us feel good. But what about cats?
The truth is that based on numbers alone, there are more cats than dogs in America (81.7 million pet cats and 72.1 million dogs, according to the American Veterinary Medical Association U.S. Pet Ownership & Demographics Sourcebook, 2007 edition).
So, for the first time as far as anyone can tell, the potential medical benefits of cats were considered in a University of Minnesota Stroke Research Center study of 4,435 people who were followed for a decade. And, in fact, cats proved even more beneficial than dogs. People without cats, or who never had cats, had a 40 percent greater risk to die of a heart attack and a 30 percent greater risk to die of any cardiovascular related disease. The study showed no such protective benefits for dog owners.
Dr. Adnan Qureshi, the study’s lead investigator and executive director of the Minneapolis, Minn.-based Stroke Center says, “We know that stress and anxiety are factors leading to cardiac disease. If a pet can ameliorate stress and anxiety, clearly having a pet is beneficial. In the past, studies have considered dogs but never cats. This is only one study, but it’s a start.”
Qureshi can’t explain why his study, unlike many others, showed no protective value for having a dog. “Perhaps petting a cat is even more helpful than we thought,” he says.
No one knows why people benefit from petting dogs. It’s probably the therapeutic touch; the actual act of petting combined with a response we receive back in return, a wagging tail, and pleasant facial gestures. But cats do something dogs can’t " they purr. Perhaps a cats’ purring has intrinsic medical value not yet discovered.
“We never even considered studying benefits of cats as a part of the equation because they’re considered aloof, and takers and not givers,” says Dr. Edward Creagan, consultant, medical oncology and past president of the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn. “Of course, these misconceptions and biases aren’t true about cats.”
Cats purr as a sign of contentment, but they also seem to purr as a sort of self-soothing medication. Veterinarians know cats purr when they are pain and also at the end of life when they are about to be euthanized. Is it possible humans derive an unknown benefit from purring? “Yes, it is a very interesting and valid point,” says Qureshi. “If cats are able to self-soothe through purring, maybe the purring soothes humans in some way we don’t understand.”
Qureshi and Creagan are among a growing number of medical experts absolutely convinced cats, as well as dogs, are beneficial to people’s health. Scientific documentation aside, there are just too many anecdotal stories to discount them all.
Denise McDade of Sandwich, Ill. rescued a cat she named Maverick in 2003. Maverick began to wake her in the middle of the night, and each time it turned out Denise’s nose had begun to bleed. Doctors have been grappling with McDade’s ongoing problem of nose bleeds, and they successfully stop the bleeds for a time. It seems the problem is fixed but then days or weeks later, Maverick alerts. “During the day, Maverick will even run from another part of the house and begins to scream at me,” she says. “I know this means my nose has begun bleeding or will start to any second.”
McDade says she has no idea how her cat is able to predict the bleeding. “I’m just glad because it’s easier for me to control the bleeding if I catch it early. So, I feel more at ease. There’s no question that Maverick and I have an amazing bond.”
This sort of bond and behavior has been written about with dogs, but rarely with cats. It turns out, McDade also has a dog. She laughs, “The dog has no clue. He just wants to play and eat.”
“We’ve never really looked at what cats are capable of,” says Creagan, who has two cats himself. “This is what preconceived notions will do. It wouldn’t surprise me if we learn that cats have equal healthful values to people as dogs.”
One difference, of course, are the physical benefits to walking dogs.
Qureshi concedes he can’t explain why dogs in his study showed no added healthful value. “Clearly previous work has demonstrated the positive affects of dogs on general health, including cardiac disease.”
Qureshi says we’re close to the day when doctors may somewhat routinely prescribe ‘get a pet " a dog or a cat’ by actually writing these words on a prescription pad. Certainly, there’s no side effect to stroking a dog or a cat to relieve anxiety. While the presidential candidates haven’t addressed pet therapy as a part of their health care plans, Qureshi says, “Insurance should cover all legitimate medical therapies, and it’s not so crazy to cover the cost of getting a pet. The benefits and financial savings for not treating someone who maintains good health far outweigh the costs.”