Letters

Allergic patients do not comply with doctors' advice to stop owning pets

BMJ 1997; 314 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.314.7079.517 (Published 15 February 1997) Cite this as: BMJ 1997;314:517
  1. Stanley Coren, Professora
  1. a Department of Psychology, University of British Columbia, Vancouver, Canada V6T 1Z4

    Editor—Doctors often suggest lifestyle changes to their patients as part of their treatment programme. Such changes are particularly important in certain conditions—for example, the control of exposure to known allergens. Doctors know, however, that many patients fail to comply with their instructions. Reduced compliance can be expected when there are emotional consequences of making lifestyle changes. An interesting example of this involves pet ownership by people with allergies to substances such as animal dander.

    During a larger study on the consequences of lifestyle on health I isolated 341 adults (mean age 38.4) who had been diagnosed as being allergic to dogs or cats. Each of those in the sample had been specifically advised by their doctor to stop sharing their living quarters with their pets. The proportion of people who complied with these instructions was extremely low: only 73 (21%) rid themselves of their pets or removed them from the inside of their homes. Such low compliance might be expected, since there is a large emotional investment in a pet, which may be viewed as equivalent to a family member. Perhaps a more striking finding results from analysis of data on a subset of 122 of these people, for whom allergy had been diagnosed sufficiently long ago that the animal they were living with at the time had died. In this group, despite the presence of allergies to their pet and the advice of their doctor, 86 (70%) had replaced the animal with a new dog or cat.

    Apparently many people find pets sufficiently important to their lifestyle that they are willing to ignore both chronic allergic symptoms and specific medical advice in order to continue living with them. The emotional gain from the companionship associated with owning a pet is clearly sufficient to offset the physical discomfort caused by continued allergic reactions. As Byron wrote in Don Juan of dog ownership (though it could also be endorsed by cat owners):

    “'Tis sweet to hear the watch-dog's honest bark

    Bay deep-mouth'd welcome as we draw near home;

    'Tis sweet to know there is an eye will mark

    Our coming, and look brighter when we come.”

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