A better old age with Tiddles and Rover

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The Independent Online
IN A WEEK that has been dominated by stories of human failings comes a report from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation on the restorative powers of pets. Or rather, pets and people in residential care, for the Foundation's researchers have been looking at the positive contribution that pets make to the health and welfare of older people, and the extent to which this is not recognised in the institutions that care for them.

The number of older people, not just here in Britain but in every industrial country, is rising sharply. Many of these people will need to move into some form of residential care, and many have pets. To these should be added other pet-owners who for various reasons need residential care, for example, children and people who have learning difficulties.

Yet Rowntree has found that pets were automatically permitted in little more than one-quarter of homes for older people and only a fifth of children's homes that it surveyed. About half allowed pets at the home's discretion.

The result is not just that many older people avoid going into care because they fear no arrangement will be made for their pets; some actually avoid seeing doctors and social workers for fear that they might be separated from them. Naturally, when people did move into homes and could not take their pets many were noticeably distressed. And yet homes that did permit pets reported fewer problems than those that did not.

This research backs up the large body of work on the positive effect that pets, particularly dogs and cats, have on people's health and well- being. Half the households in the Western world own a pet, so presumably we humans feel we must get something out of the relationship. Indeed to the half of the Western world that does not have pets, we must seem potty about them.

Here in Britain we have National Pet Week, and of course all the animal welfare societies. We have schemes to foster pets when their owners go into hospital. For people who are already in hospital but do not have pets of their own, we have Therapet, where people bring animals, mostly dogs, into the hospitals to visit the sick. (For some, the animal is their only visitor.)

The scientific basis on which all this activity is built is quite solid. Research by Erica Friedmann, now at the City University of New York, shows that owning pets not only reduces blood pressure, but to a small extent increases the chances of recovery after heart attacks. Talking to or greeting a dog, she found, immediately lowered blood pressure.

In Australia, research at the Baker Medical Research Institute in Melbourne has also shown that pet-owners enjoy lower blood pressure, together with lower cholesterol and lower triglyceride fat levels in their blood. Owning a pet was as efficient a way of cutting blood pressure as a low-salt or reduced- alcohol diet - an option which many people, faced with such a choice, might consider more attractive.

Even people who are not habitual pet-owners find their health improves when they are given an animal to look after. A report in New Scientist on 9 October last year highlighted the work of James Serpell, former director of the Companion Animal Research Group in Cambridge, now at the University of Pennsylvania.

He took a group of people, split them into three batches, giving one group dogs and another cats to look after, while the third did not have any animal. He found that over 18 months both groups with animals reported significantly fewer health problems than those without - those with dogs did best of all, possibly because they took more exercise walking their charges.

The benefits are not confined to dogs and cats, either. Other studies show that a tankful of tropical fish had a similarly calming effect on people - though would-be fish owners should remember the results of the Which? test on pets a few years back: it concluded that goldfish 'did not return love'.

Against such benefits should be set the costs that pet ownership does impose on society. (We will leave aside the costs they impose on their owners. I realised that the mark-up on petfood must be phenomenal when our dog received a Christmas card from his preferred supplier. Margins must be high to make enough out of selling tins at 42p to cover that sort of personalised - or caninised - service.)

No, it is the costs to society that matter. Most obvious here are attacks on people by dangerous dogs: more than 250,000 dog bites are registered each year. Many people, particularly those living in towns, will resent the way in which some owners use dogs to intimidate others. There are also some health concerns, for example the 10 or so cases a year of toxo-cariasis, caused by a roundworm parasite in dogs and which can cause blindness in children. The nation's dogs produce 1 million kilos of faeces every day, and 4.5 million litres of urine. Unlike New Yorkers, we are resistant to the culture of the pooper-scooper.

Notwithstanding the problems pets undoubtedly create, on balance the evidence is that domestic animals do materially improve the human condition. Yet we do not use that information in any organised way. How might we do so?

The central role of pets must surely be to help improve the general health of the nation. Over the next generation, healthcare will become less and less a matter of treating problems that are acute or technically interesting or indeed can be cured. Instead it will be increasingly a matter of caring for the old, the infirm, the mentally ill, the people who cannot or will not look after themselves - people who will not get better.

Modern hi-tech medicine is not very good at this. We need to think laterally: to look at a host of alternative ways of improving our general level of health, and of making the lives of people who will never again be very fit more interesting, enjoyable and fulfilling. Pets are one such way of helping these people.

The Rowntree Foundation itself makes a number of helpful suggestions on the ways in which residential homes should move forward. The most simple of these is that homes which prohibit pets, particularly cats and dogs, should reconsider that policy. More generally, we need to look in a much more organised and quantified way at the benefits pets can bring, and then test various pet-friendly policies to see how society as a whole might benefit.

A final thought: if a little of the money that goes into petfood advertising were diverted to serious research in this area . . . but I really must stop now and walk the dog.