Now We Know: Dogs Are Better than Cats

Hate to be the bearer of such controversial news, but...

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Jun 28 2017, 9:36pm

Image: Jesse Schoff/Unsplash

Cats versus dogs, which are better? It's one of the most enduring and divisive (if petty) debates of modern American life. After years of soft studies purporting to settle the debate, brutal spats between American luminaries, and subtle propaganda campaigns, we're no closer to reaching an answer. Dogs have more territory, but cats have numbers on their side. Each of their purported merits or demerits seems subjective, dependent on a potential human companion's personality. It seems like canine and feline partisans will always be at loggerheads. But there may be at least one field of battle upon which we can declare a clear winner: health. For decades, scientists have been studying the effects that pet ownership has on our wellbeing, and they suggest that there may be a definite imbalance in the unique risks and benefits posed by America's two iconic pets.

Before diving into the comparative benefits of each camp, it's worth acknowledging that any kind of pet ownership can offer substantial health gains. According to Marcia Darling, co-author of a recent comprehensive review of the animal health impacts on humans, cats and dogs both help to decrease stress and anxiety, which can help with cardiovascular wellness, anxiety, and a host of other issues. "There isn't a definitive study about how this works," Darling says, "but the best theory out there is that because of owners' attachment to the pets, assuming there's a good relationship, even something like the [pet] looking at them can elevate their oxytocin levels," in turn driving down stress factors in the blood. Pet ownership in general can also significantly reduce the risk of children developing allergies, noted Darling, although we're not sure how.

Beyond their raw physiological influence, pets can all help to stave off loneliness, which can have a significant impact on overall wellbeing. They can also push people to to cut down on unhealthy habits and increase health habits. "One of the things that helps people try to stop smoking is understanding the harm it causes to a pet," Darling says. Folks also want to make sure that they're capable of taking care of an animal they're bonded to throughout their lives.

Pets can also put strains on a human's health. Caring for them, or suffering through their deaths, can increase stress in some people, while others may wind up isolated from friends or partners who don't share their love of a given animal. Plus there's always the risk of tripping on an animal, getting bitten, or suffering some other bizarre injury. But those risks are relatively minor and, said Darling, easy enough to mitigate—especially when compared to pets' potential benefits.

Darling, who's loathe to pick sides between or even directly compare cats and dogs, has to admit that the studies she's aware of indicate cats are more effective at lowering blood pressure than dogs. There's also a bizarre provisional theory floating amongst some researchers that the frequency of kitty purrs can help people's bones and muscles heal faster after injuries. Dogs just don't vibrate like that.

However, cats are also vectors for a ton of animal-borne diseases. Although the threat of toxoplasmosis gondii, a bogeyman for pregnant women and babies in the media, is definitively overblown (you're more likely to get it from undercooked meat than from a cat), they are the prime vector for the most common "zoonotic" disease seen in doctor's offices: ringworm. A healthy cat and a minimally sanitary owner can avoid these diseases easily, said Darling. But cats are also, according to some reports, more likely to attack their owners in fits of feline rage.

Images: Ben Akada / Hero Images / Getty

Dogs (it pains the writer, a diehard cat man, to say) seem to have a much more favorable ratio of unique benefits to risks. They may not be as great at lowering stress inherently, but they do a better job of motivating their owners to exercise. People benefit from the motivation of a workout buddy, explains Darling, but we're great at talking each other out of going to the gym. A dog, though "will always want to go for a walk, and they do have that enthusiasm." (Darling notes that some people do walk their cats, but they're a far less common motivation for activity.)

Dogs also seem to have a stronger effect than cats when it comes to reducing allergies in children who grow up with them. They can apparently be trained to sniff out cancer, sense when a diabetic owner is low on blood sugar, or warn epileptics of upcoming seizures, too, although their reliability on these fronts is questionable. But dogs' attunement to human emotions generally makes them strong social support companions of all stripes, especially compared with the cold distance of a cat. Their only consistent risk factor is that they seem to account for more falls amongst the frail.

This is hardly a definitive health and wellness comparison. As Darling notes, although there've long been calls to consider pets in more studies of human health and to author more dedicated studies, there's just not a ton of money available for that kind of work. As such, some studies suggesting one sort of benefit or another only look at cats or dogs, making it difficult to make a straight comparison. Many are too small and provisional to put any credence into at this point. Even some of the best-attested benefits of pet ownership overall, like its effects on stress and anxiety, are still contested. But taking those grains of salt into account, given what we know today, dogs offer more health benefits than cats, and more diverse ones at that. And less ringworm.

That doesn't mean cat types like me should ditch our little murder beasts for dopey dogs. According to Darling, most of the health benefits associated with any given pet are dependent on a human feeling a connection with that animal. "You can't say to somebody, if they're not exercising enough, 'go and get a dog,'" she says, "if they're terrified of dogs." So a cat person may still get a lot more out of a fierce little kitty than he or she would out of a puzzling puppy. And a non-pet-person might wind up more stressed and worse off overall with either. Once again, we fall into the subjective experience trap of the cat-dog debate.

Still, in raw medical data, you've got to give it to dogs. Even if their unconditional love is creepy.

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