Feb. 22, 2008— -- Beth Birnbaum says she has experienced firsthand the health benefits of owning a cat.
For over 20 years, Birnbaum has been battling painful chronic diseases such as fibromyalgia, arthritis and degenerative disk disease. The best medicine for her pain, Beth found, did not come from a prescription, but instead from her relationship with her adopted cat, Misty.
"Just last week I was on sofa, and in so much pain that I was crying and couldn't get up," Birnbaum explained. "And Misty is not a lap cat by nature, but she came over to me, hopped on the sofa, lied down next to me and put her head on my shoulder and started purring away."
"I can't really explain it, the feelings I have in those moments," Birnbaum said. "My pain didn't go away, but it was truly eased."
And new research suggests the benefits of cat ownership may even go beyond pain relief. According to the study, presented Thursday at the American Stroke Association meeting in New Orleans, cat owners may actually be less likely to die from heart attack, stroke or other types of cardiovascular disease.
Researchers at the University of Minnesota's Stroke Research Center looked at 4,435 people, aged 30 to 75 years, who were participating in ongoing national government health research from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Study.
They found that over a 20-year period, those who had never owned a cat had a 40 percent greater risk of death due to heart attack and a 30 percent higher risk of death due to any sort of cardiovascular disease than previous or current cat owners. Researchers found no such protective effects for dog owners.
"This study links pet ownership to health consequences, and that's very new concept that we haven't previously considered," said lead study investigator Dr. Adnan Qureshi, executive director of the Stroke Center at the University of Minnesota.
To many veterinary experts, these findings came as no surprise.
"I have heard an owner with a chronic, debilitating illness say that her cat gives her a reason to get up each day," said Marla McGeorge, veterinarian at The Cat Doctor in Portland, Ore.
Although the researchers weren't able to pinpoint the reason why cat owners would experience these heart benefits, Qureshi believes it might have something to do with the ability of cats to lower stress and anxiety in their owners.
However, Qureshi admitted to the possibility that these heart benefits might have more to do with the overall personality and lifestyle of cat owners rather than the cats themselves.
"Maybe cat owners tend not to have high-stress personalities, or they are just the type of people that are not highly affected by anxiety or high-stress situations," Qureshi said.
The researchers were not able to analyze the personality traits of the study's participants, and therefore could not stratify the individuals based on personality to see how certain personality traits might relate to cat ownership.
Because of this, some experts believe the research should be taken with a grain of salt.
"I believe the kind of person who would own a cat is a nurturing, low-stress individual," said Nicholas Dodman, director of the Animal Behavior Clinic and professor in the department of clinical sciences at the Tufts Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine in North Grafton, Ma. "Most cat owners I see are very invested in their pet. The cat becomes a focus of their interests and seems to deflect them from other worries."
Other experts were even more skeptical.
"If you believe this research, I have a bridge in Brooklyn to sell you at a very good price," said Dr. Steve Nissen, chairman of the department of cardiovascular medicine at the Cleveland Clinic and immediate past president of the American College of Cardiology.
Moreover, some experts pointed to past research on the health benefits of pet ownership which had vastly different conclusions.
A study of heart attack patients published in the American Journal of Cardiology in 1995 found dog owners were six times more likely to survive an additional year than patients who didn't own dogs. The study found that owning cats, however, actually had an adverse association with survival.
Dr. Robert Myerburg, director of the division of cardiology at the University of Miami, said it makes more sense that dogs would provide more heart benefit to pet owners than cats.
"That [makes] sense to me because cats are more allergenic, and [the] immune response plays a role in heart attacks," Myerburg said. "[I] don't know why this study comes out opposite."
However, Lawrence McGill, technical vice-president and veterinary pathologist at ARUP Laboratories in Salt Lake City, Utah, said it might make sense that cats would de-stress owners and present heart benefits that dogs could not.
"I suspect this is due to the type of animal a cat is," McGill explained. "The cat is most commonly a lap animal and wants [to be] petted. When being petted, the stress level of the pet and owner goes down, as well as heart rate and blood pressure in most cases."
In contrast, McGill pointed out that dogs require more hands-on attention than cats, possibly contributing to the stress of the owner.
"When you get home from work, you have to give a dog attention, [and] if it is walk time — sorry, you have to do this," McGill explained. "They need to be fed on a routine basis. Dogs require [more] attention hands-on and when they want it. Dogs cannot hide their illnesses as much as a cat … [and] to some people, barking dogs are a stressor."
Still, cat lover Marty Becker, veterinarian at the North Idaho Animal Hospital in Sandpoint, Idaho, and author of "The Healing Power of Pets," said he's experienced firsthand the health benefits from owning his five cats.
"I had major surgery around September 2001 because of a slipped disk in my neck and was going through a very hard time," Becker explained. "It was right around 9/11, and all of that sadness and stress was physically debilitating and I felt myself slipping away mentally, but my cats could sense all of this and actually drew nearer to me. I have experienced the healing power of these animals first hand."
According to statistics from the American Veterinary Medical Association, there are more than 72 million pet dogs in the United States and nearly 82 million pet cats.