Health professionals who ask patients about their pets gain important information that can lead to better treatment and care for those people, new Canadian research shows.

Those who asked learned more about their patients' housing conditions, financial situation, emotional health and lifestyle in a non-threatening way.

These conversations also built trust and improved rapport, which increased the chance of compliance with medical advice.

"There's tons of evidence that shows companion animals are really important  determinants of health in many families," said Dr. Kate Hodgson, a veterinarian and continuing medical education professor at the University of Toronto's faculty of medicine.

Hodgson and Dr. Alan Monavvari, head of research and family medicine at Markham Stouffville Hospital, who also teaches at the University of Toronto, surveyed 225 health professionals including physicians, nurses, nurse practitioners and social workers.
Dr. Alan Monavvari

'For some people, their pet is the most important family member,' says Dr. Alan Monavvari of Markham Stouffville Hospital. (Maureen Brosnahan/CBC)

The research is the first of its kind in Canada, Hodgson says. It was funded by the Human-Animal Bond Research Initiative (HABRI) based in the United States.

They asked participants three questions: Do you ask your patients if they own a pet; if so, what kind of pet; and have you ever had contact with a veterinarian about a patient's health. Initially they found only 44 per cent had ever asked their patients about pets.

They followed up and offered those who participated education and information about pets' impact on patient health, including the importance companion animals play in people's lives.

The researchers also provided information about zoonotic diseases — conditions that can be passed from animals to humans — as well as the concept of zooeyia, the health benefits provided by pets.

A few months later they surveyed the participants again and asked the same three questions. This time, the number of health professionals who asked patients about their pets jumped to 74 per cent. What's more, said Hodgson, patients were more than happy to answer, and they provided lots of information.

"What the data shows is that they immediately were getting positive feedback — they were learning more about the patient," she said.

"It was not perceived as a threatening or judgemental question at all," she said.

"Our study showed that 85 per cent of health care providers were able to learn more about the physical activity of that family … 60 per cent of the time they were able to get a much better idea about the companionship and social dynamics."

In Canada, research shows 55 per cent of Canadians live with at least one pet and another 15 per cent expect to acquire a pet in the coming year. This includes dogs, cats, horses, birds, fish and pocket pets such as rabbits, hamsters and guinea pigs, as well as reptiles.

Pets 2

An informal survey of veterinarian Dr. Peter Weidelich's clients suggests more than half allow their pets to sleep in their beds. 'Dogs and cats ... are certainly considered family now,' he says. (Maureen Brosnahan/CBC)

Dr. Peter Weidelich sees the growing importance pets play in people's lives. He's been a veterinarian at Town and Country Animal Hospital  in Stouffville, Ont., for more than 30 years.

"Dogs and cats fulfil a tremendous need in the lives of their owners and are certainly considered family now," he said, adding that an informal survey of his clients suggests more than half allow their pets to sleep in their beds.

Pets even love jerks

"A dog or a cat is always there and no matter how big a jerk you've been during the day, your dog or cat will always love you when you come home," he said, adding pets often alleviate loneliness and offer companionship, especially for elderly people.

Monavvari said knowing more about that bond opens up all kinds of possibilities for human health professionals.

"For some people, their pet is the most important family member for them and we were missing that piece altogether. We didn't know what to ask or if it is appropriate to ask and what information that provides," he told CBC News.

Patients love to talk about their pets, said Monavvari, and often that can be the most important bond in their lives.  He said patients will sometimes put their pet's health ahead of their own.

Therapy pets brochure

A brochure for health professionals explains the benefits of discussing pet ownership with patients. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

"For example, if I give you a very expensive medicine to take and your income can only cover the food for your pet, there's a big chance that you are not going to take that medication. We didn't know that and we just kept wondering why this patient is not complying."

That bond can also be used to motivate people to adapt a healthier lifestyle, said Hodgson. Studies show dog owners are likely to get more exercise and live longer and that even petting a cat or dog can lower blood pressure, she said.

"People are more likely to curtail their smoking behaviour to protect their companion animal even more than their wife or husband. So they'll do things like not smoke in the bedroom, not smoke in the car, try to cut down or even quit smoking to protect their pets because pets are affected by second-hand smoke," she said.

A little fish love, too

Recent studies show even companion fish can have an impact. "If you put an aquarium in front of a table, people with dementia will eat more just watching the aquarium fish," she said.

Hodgson said their data, which will be published in the coming months, shows the need to include veterinarians in human health care.

Veterinarians are trained to mitigate the risk of disease that animals may cause humans, while she says physicians generally know little about this area. Veterinarians also see first-hand the grief patients suffer when they lose a pet, something doctors with human patients may not know or consider.

"The vet is the other family doctor and they are there to be a resource and a help as well," Hodgson said.

"There is a lot of interest in connecting the two worlds together," added Monavvari.

Hodgson and Monavvari hope to continue their research in this area. In their next phase they are looking to study the pet-patient bond, this time with input from patients and veterinarians.