Unsupportable ‘cat therapy’ stories score high on cuteness but low on quality, even though many of us probably don’t care….(and have never heard of the word zoonoses)

Alan Cassels is one of our reviewers and a regular contributor to the blog.

The Huffington Post recently published a story, “11 Reasons Your Crazy Cat Obsession Makes You Happier And Healthier,” in a section called the “Third Metric: Redefining Success Beyond Money and Power.” Not only was this a bit of a head-scratcher, it seemed little more than shameless, cat-lover click-bait. Certainly cat lovers will be ensnared with the alluring headline and the heart-melting pictures of kittens, like this one. Tapping into what is undoubtedly a huge and growing internet-based repository for all things feline, why wouldn’t a news outlet flagrantly exploit another story of the alleged health benefits of cat ownership?

Alan & Oscar

Alan & Oscar

The opener sets the stage: “Your cat isn’t just a cute and cuddly ball of fluff — he’s also incredibly good for your health.” That claim caught our attention down at HealthNewsReview.org because it made us wonder: why is this news? And why is it being reported on now? And further: is there any new science behind the hype?

After reading the article, you might be compelled to ask: is there any health benefit on the planet that cat ownership can’t deliver on? Not only can feline companionship reduce our blood pressure and stress, apparently cats can also make us laugh, deliver benefits which are linked to healthier hearts and immune systems, and reduce the risk of heart attacks and strokes.

Sadly there was nothing new here except a big pile of cat cuteness with the story using recycled research from two key studies from 2008 and 2009. The 2008 study quotes Dr. Adnan Qureshi, of the Minnesota Stroke Institute in Minneapolis, saying: “We found that people who do not own cats have a 40% higher risk of dying from a myocardial infarction (MI) than people who do keep cats as pets.” If true those results are better than any statin or antihypertensive drug that’s ever been invented. “Nurse, this man has very high blood pressure. Get him a cat, stat!” The second study concluded: “A decreased risk for death due to MI and all cardiovascular diseases (including stroke) was observed among persons with cats. Acquisition of cats as domestic pets may represent a novel strategy for reducing the risk of cardiovascular diseases in high-risk individuals.” These, of course, were observational studies, which might say more about the kind of person who owns a cat and their health choices than the felines’ health-delivering benefits. The effects are likely just another type of healthy-user bias.

In the interests of full disclosure, I am a Cat Person, and very attuned to accept any, even the wildest of claims about the benefits of cats, including the likelihood that cats are clairvoyant, and that their purrs are medically therapeutic and proven to control the blood pressure of hypertensive stockbrokers. I’m pretty well ready to believe anything, and so when reading articles which support my love of cats, I did not even stop to consider for a second that there might be some conflicts of interest at work. Maybe these staunch pro-cat declarations are the result of behind-the-scenes work of pet food makers, veterinarians, and cat breeders including the ASPCA, which wants you to stop reading this blog right now, turn off your computer and run to the nearest shelter to adopt a cat. You’ve heard of Big Oil and Big Pharma. Is this Big Feline?

Perhaps the best thing you can say about the Huffpost piece is that it’s not as bad or as extreme as this story which carries the outrageous subtitle: “So … cats are basically magic. And this can be proven. With science.” It makes the claim that “your purring cat can help with bone and muscle repair, pain relief, dyspnea (shortness of breath), and so. Much. More. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.” These claims come with a neat info graphic about “the healing power of cat purrs.” (Did you know that frequencies of 25 to 50 Hz are best, and 100 to 200 Hz are second-best for promoting bone strength?)

Even though Cat People like me are totally predisposed to believe the hypotheses, these stories do very little to scientifically underpin the cat-owning health claims, tease out the conflicts of interests at stake, or critically examine the evidence. They also do little to discuss the downsides of owning a cat: namely zoonoses (the general name for diseases that spread from animals to humans).  The problems associated with diseases that spread from cats to humans include parasitic infestations and bacterial or viral infections. There’s also the possibility — apparently taken seriously in some scientific circles — that cat microbes are making you crazy and killing more than a million people each year! And yet frightfully little of the harms of cat ownership are included in these types of articles. Information from the Centers for Disease Control stresses the health benefits of pets, including their ability to lower blood pressure and cholesterol levels and reduce feelings of loneliness, but even that seems not to be based on any clear presentation of scientific research. I’d love to believe that my cat is improving the quality and length of my life, but proving those assertions with quality science seems an elusive endeavor.

Having said that, Oscar sits beside my desk, on my printer, watching me and purring. Unlike a dog who begs for attention he just sits there, zen-like. I imagine he’s thinking: “I purr, therefore I am pure.” Or more likely he’s thinking: “If I sit on this nice warm printer long enough, then typer-dude will feed me.” Oscar drools because he’s old, steps on my keyboard and leaves cat hair everywhere. I put up with all this because, as research shows, he’s likely activating my oxytocin system, generating psychological and psychophysiological benefits. Or maybe not.

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