Dogs and nicotine: ignoring the benefits

My dog in the act of spreading bacteria on my couch

The Express UK headline Pet Lovers have the Filthiest Kitchen Floors ran above an article detailing how someone with a pet had bacteria levels about 20 times higher than someone without. Sounds impressive.

On the other hand, according to an overview by Patricia Well in the British Journal of Health Psychology (V 12:1, Feb 2007: 145-156), dogs tend to improve owner’s lives in a number of ways including lower levels of heart disease, and quicker recovery from incidents of the same with perhaps an even stronger effect is the amelioration of stressful events.

This provides a parallel with some of the debate around nicotine, tobacco and how you measure harm and good.

Much as been made of the Hecht study back in 2007 which found that the levels of certain tobacco specific nitrosamines were as high or higher (as measured in the urine) in smokeless tobacco users than in smokers. This was interpreted by many to mean that the use of smokeless tobacco was as dangerous as cigarettes. Of course, if you look at the population and compare how many smokeless tobacco users get ill compared to smokers, you realize that these sorts of chemical analyses do not necessarily translate into population effects. Of course this is did not stop Hecht and company concluding that their findings did “not support the use of smokeless tobacco as a safe substitute for smoking”. The dog article on the other hand made no predictions at all about any health effects.

Comparing dogs and nicotine is a stretch but to do so could illustrate a couple of major points.

Having dogs, like using nicotine, can easily be made to look simply as a cost. On paper, my dog costs me money and time, complicates my life by making it more difficult to travel, and overall adds quite a few daily chores to my schedule. On the other hand, I get an uncomplicated companionship, which provides stress relief in many different ways. I could choose to give up my dog which would make me richer and freer but probably less happy, and quite possibly more disease prone.

So if it was simply a matter of how bacteria ridden my floors, and couch are, I should be getting sick more often than people with pet free homes. I don’t seem to be. And while my story is just mine, the Wells study indicates it is not unusual.

Anti-tobacco activists like to portray nicotine use as pure cost, as though there are no benefits, and people who don’t use nicotine (and many who do) buy into that story. I’m sure people who don’t like dogs see my dog as pure cost. (And for another parallel beyond this one, dog owners also see new restrictions every few years (higher fees for licensing and infractions, fewer dog allowed areas, breeds disallowed based on no science).

Now the benefits tobacco users or dog owners get may not be unique but the point is that they do exist and they make being a smoker, vaper, smokeless tobacco user, or dog owner rational choices.

-Paul L. Bergen

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