What could be better for a kid than a pet?
Think of Lassie and Timmy, Lilo and Stitch, Wallace and Gromit, or, more recently, the hero pooches of PAW Patrol. Life-changers one and all, right?
Well, maybe not.
Contrary to popular belief and even expert opinion, sharing our homes with cuddly companions like dogs and cats does not improve the mental or physical well-being of children, according to a new study by the RAND Corp.
The findings, published online this month in the journal Anthrozoos, come from what the authors say is the largest study to examine the notion that pet ownership improves the health of children.
The analysis didn't show that pets had a negative impact. Rather, it didn't yield proof of the positive affects found in some other studies.
Actually, the results weren't what the RAND researchers expected.
"Everyone on the research team was surprised," said Layla Parast, the study's lead statistician with RAND, a nonprofit research organization. "We all have, or grew up with, dogs and cats. We had essentially assumed from our own personal experiences that there was a connection."
"We thought it would be a cute little study," added Parast, who still acknowledges having strong feelings for her childhood dog, Collette.
Yet when the team factored out other variables that could affect their findings, she said, their assumptions didn't hold.
"We could not find evidence that children from families with dogs or cats are better off, either in terms of their mental well-being or their physical health," Parast said.
The RAND study analyzed information about more than 2,200 children who lived in pet-owning households in California, and compared them to 3,000 households that didn't have a dog or cat. The information came from the 2003 California Health Interview Survey, an annual survey by the University of California, Los Angeles Center for Health Policy Research.
The researchers believed their large sample size gave the study added weight.
The team did detect differences between the pet-owning and sans-pet families. At first look, children in the pet-owning families seemed to have better health, and were more likely to be physically active and obedient. They were also more likely to have attention deficient hyperactivity disorder. They were less likely to have parents concerned about their mood, behavior, and learning ability.
But when the team adjusted the findings to account for other variables, including family income and other potentially relevant factors, the association between pet ownership and child health seemed to dissipate.
That's not to say the study didn't have its limitations.
"I don't think the findings are terribly surprising," said James Serpell, a University of Pennsylvania professor of ethics and animal welfare and an authority on the human-animal bond.
He noted that the study design "did not include questions about the children's individual relationships with [or] attachments for their pets."
Serpell also said the measures of children's health were pretty limited. "Given these limitations, it doesn't surprise me that they found no differences between pet owning and non-owning children," he said.
Evidence of pets' positive impact on humans' physical and mental health has been found in a number of other studies, even if they involved fewer subjects.
A study by Serpell found pet owners had fewer minor health problems, and that dog owners in particular engaged in more physical activity.
Parast agreed their study had its limits. Given that their information came from a 2003 survey — the only year pet ownership was asked about — the researchers couldn't go back and interview all of the people questioned.
Ideally, Parast said, a future study could be designed with pets randomly assigned to some families and not to others. Researchers would monitor the impact on both groups over a prolonged period.
Unfortunately, "such a study would likely be too costly and/or infeasible to implement, and I'm afraid it's not likely to be funded," she said.