Pet Dogs Benefit Owners’ Health: A ‘Natural Experiment’ in China


This paper reports results from a ‘natural experiment’ taking place in China on the impact of dogs on owners’ health. Previous Western research has reported modest health benefits, but results have remained controversial. In China pets were banned in urban areas until 1992. Since then dog ownership has grown quite rapidly in the major cities, especially among younger women. In these quasi-experimental conditions, we hypothesise that dog ownership will show greater health benefits than in the West. Results are given from a survey of women aged 25–40 in Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou (N = 3031). Half the respondents owned dogs and half did not. Owners reported better health-related outcomes. They exercised more frequently, slept better, had higher self-reported fitness and health, took fewer days off sick from work and were seen less by doctors. The concluding section indicates how these results may be integrated and suggests further research on the potential economic benefits of pets.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.

Fig. 1


  1. 1.

    All results were net of gender, age, income and self-assessed health status in 1996.

  2. 2.

    It should be noted that this exercise question did not refer to walking the dog and was asked before pet-specific questions were raised.

  3. 3.

    For example, point 3 on the scale was ‘exercises 1–2 times each week’. A mid-point of 1.5 was interpolated.

  4. 4.

    As for the exercise question, frequencies were interpolated at scale mid-points for these two questions.

  5. 5.

    A negative binomial is one specific type of Poisson distribution.

  6. 6.

    Individual income correlated more highly with health outcomes than household income. It was measured in 12 bands; the mid-point of each band was interpolated.

  7. 7.

    The coefficients from the ordered probits cannot be given any straightforward interpretation beyond noting their sign and level of significance (Greene 2000, pp. 877–878).

  8. 8.

    Being an agricultural worker is strongly negatively related to exercise, and having a health disability is, not surprisingly, strongly negatively related to fitness and health.

  9. 9.

    Including Chinese rural people is not a sensible option at present, given that dogs in rural areas are not generally viewed as pets.

  10. 10.

    Some tentative estimates have been made for Australia and Germany based on fewer annual doctor visits by pet owners compared to non-owners (Headey 1999; Headey et al. 2002).


  1. Allen, K. M., & Blascovich, J. (1991). Presence of human friends and pet dogs as moderators of autonomic responses to stress in women. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 79, 582–589.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  2. Allen, K. M., & Shykoff, B. E. (2001). Pet ownership, but not ace inhibitor therapy, blunts human blood pressure responses to mental stress. Hypertension, 38, 815–820.

    Google Scholar 

  3. Allen, K. M., Blascovich, J., & Mendes, W. B. (2002). Cardiovascular reactivity and the presence of pets, friends and spouses: the truth about cats and dogs. Psychological Medicine, 64, 727–739.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  4. Beck, A. M., & Katcher, A. H. (1984). A new look at pet-facilitated psychotherapy. Journal of the American Veterinary Association, 184, 414–421.

    Google Scholar 

  5. Friedmann, E., Katcher, A. H., Lynch, J. J., & Thomas, S. A. (1980). Animal companions and one year survival of patients after discharge from a coronary care unit. Public Health Reports, 95, 307–312.

    Google Scholar 

  6. Friedmann, E., & Thomas, S. A. (1995) Pet ownership, social support and one year survival after acute myocardial infarction in the cardiac arrhythmic suppression trial, CAST. American Journal of Cardiology, 76, 1213–1217.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  7. Fu, Na, & Zheng, R. (2003). Influences of pet ownership on the empty nester family. Chinese Mental Health Journal, 17, 31–39.

    Google Scholar 

  8. Garrity, T. F., & Stallones, L. (1998). Effects of pet contact on human well-being: review of recent research. In C. C. Wilson, & D. C. Turner (Eds.), Companion animals in human health (pp. 3–22). London: Sage.

    Google Scholar 

  9. Greene, W. H. (2000) Econometric analysis (4th ed.). New Jersey: Prentice Hall.

    Google Scholar 

  10. Headey, B. W. (1999). Health benefits and health cost savings due to pets: preliminary estimates from an Australian National Survey. Social Indicators Research, 47, 233–243.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  11. Headey, B. W., Grabka, M., Kelley, J., Reddy, P., & Tseng, Y.-P. (2002). Pet ownership is good for your health and saves public expenditure too: Australian and German longitudinal evidence. Australian Social Monitor, 93–99.

  12. Headey, B. W., & Grabka, M. (2007). Pets and human health in Germany and Australia: national longitudinal results. Social Indicators Research, 80, 297–311.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  13. Jorm, A. F., Jacomb, P. A., Christensen, H., Henderson, S., Korten, A. E., & Rodgers, B. (1997). Impact of pet ownership on elderly Australians’ use of medical services: an analysis using medicare data. Medical Journal of Australia, 166, 376–377.

    Google Scholar 

  14. Kingwell, B. A., Lomdahl, A., & Anderson, W. P. (2001). Presence of a pet dog and human cardiovascular responses to mild mental stress. Clinical Autonomic Response, 11, 313–317.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  15. Matooka, M., Koike, H., Yokoyama, T., & Kennedy, N. L. (2006). Effect of dog-walking on autonomic nervous activity in senior citizens. Medical Journal of Australia, 184, 60–63.

    Google Scholar 

  16. Ory, M. G., & Goldberg, E. L. (1983). Pet possession and life satisfaction in elderly women. In A. H. Katcher, & A. M. Beck (Eds.), New perspectives on our lives with companion animals (pp. 303–317). Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

    Google Scholar 

  17. Parslow, R. A., & Jorm, A. F. (2003). The impact of pet ownership on health and human service use: results from a community sample of Australians aged 40 to 44 years. Anthrozoos, 16.

  18. Putnam, R. D. (2000). Bowling alone: the collapse and revival of American community. New York: Simon & Schuster.

    Google Scholar 

  19. Raina, P., Bonnett, B., & Waltner-Toews, D. (1998). Relationship between pet ownership and health care use among seniors, 8th Conference of the International Association of Human-Animal Interaction Organisations, Prague, Sept. 10–11.

  20. Robb, S., & Stegman, C. (1983). Companion animals and elderly people: a challenge for evaluations of social support. Gerontologist, 23, 277–282.

    Google Scholar 

  21. Schwarze, J., Andersen, H., & Anger, S. (2000). Self-rated health and changes in self-rated health as predictors of mortality – first evidence from the German panel data, DIW Discussion Paper No. 203, Berlin, DIW.

  22. Serpell, J. A. (1991). Beneficial aspects of pet ownership on some aspects of human health and behaviour. Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine, 84, 717–720.

    Google Scholar 

  23. Siegel, J. M. (1990). Stressful life events and the use of physician services among the elderly: the moderating effects of pet ownership. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 58, 1081–1086.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  24. Stasi, M. F., Amati, D., Costa, C., Resta, D., Senepa, G., Scarafioti, C., Aimonino, N., & Molaschi, M. (2004). Pet-therapy: a trial for institutionalized frail elderly patients. Archives of Gerontology and Geriatrics, Supplement, 9, 407–412.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  25. Winkelmann, R. (2000). Seemingly unrelated binomial regression. Oxford Bulletin of Economics and Statistics, 62, 553–560.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  26. Wood, L., Giles-Corti, B., & Bulsara, M. (2005). The pet connection: pets as a conduit for social capital? Social Science & Medicine, 61(6), 1159–1173.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  27. Wright, J. C., & Moore, D. (1982). Comments on animal companions and one-year survival of patients after discharge. Public Health Reports, 97, 380–381.

    Google Scholar 

Download references

Author information



Corresponding author

Correspondence to Bruce Headey.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Cite this article

Headey, B., Na, F. & Zheng, R. Pet Dogs Benefit Owners’ Health: A ‘Natural Experiment’ in China. Soc Indic Res 87, 481–493 (2008).

Download citation


  • Pets
  • Health
  • China
  • Natural experiment