This week’s issue of the New York Times‘ Science Times is devoted to animals, with a lineup of articles that spans everything from health to food to emotions. They’ve given us interesting food for thought, but they’ve also presented some ethical conundrums: One article debates the moral grounds of vegetarianism, Mark Bittman scolds us for considering pets more equal than the animals we find on our dinner plates, and another tells us to forget the treadmill and get a dog. They present several wonderful debates to liven up our dinner conversation, but the bit about replacing our gyms with dogs really strikes a nerve: I’m no animal rights activist, but even I find it alarming to treat a dog like a fitness toy. Dogs require time, money, and commitment that no treadmill will ever ask you for, and they deserve a lot more love and consideration than a gym. Could they also benefit your health? Definitely. But that’s not reason enough to get a pet. (You’d probably lose weight chasing a toddler around, but that’s not a very good reason to adopt one, is it?)
“If you’re looking for the latest in home exercise equipment, you may want to consider something with four legs and a wagging tail,” says Times columnist Tara Parker-Pope. She goes on to describe studies that, convincingly, prove that dog owners are more likely to get regular exercise and meet federal physical activity recommendations than those who live without man’s best friend. One study even found that dog owners were more likely to pursue physical activity outside of just walking their dogs.
So why am I not convinced? These studies are great news for someone who owns a dog or already wants to get one, but they don’t paint the whole picture of what it means to own a pet. First of all, the studies do find that some dog owners aren’t getting tons of exercise. Other factors, like age and education, strongly influence how much a person walks their dog, proving that man plus dog doesn’t always equal exercise. And the studies cited in the article don’t really make it clear whether owning a dog is in itself responsible for the outstanding health of its owners. Some studies have found that increasing exercise is one reason some people decide to get a dog, but I’m guessing that there are other reasons behind the outstanding lifestyles of so many dog owners — couldn’t it just be that dogs attract active people?
I have nothing against dogs — if I lived in a bigger apartment, had more time, and had more resources (and dogsitters) at my disposal, I’d already have one myself. But it seems ironic to me that, while other writers are getting into the intricacies of animal rights, their health writer is flippantly suggesting I get a dog for the sole purpose of slimming down my thighs. Dogs are a lot of work, and require big changes in lifestyle beyond adding daily 30-minute walks. If you don’t believe me, I suggest reading about how an adorable pooch almost ruined the long-term relationship of one of our writers; she and her boyfriend prove that there’s more to owning a dog than taking it for a stroll.
If you’re already thinking of owning a dog, have been researching breeds and training methods for years, and know that you have ample time and money to take care of it, then congratulations: You’ll likely reap health benefits from this exciting new addition to your life. But please, don’t think of a dog as a treadmill-replacement: Animal shelter volunteers don’t need your cast-off in order to get exercise.