If thoughts of shedding dog hair, stinky cat litter or another mouth to feed have led you to declare your home an animal-free zone, consider this: It’s not just kids who gain companionship, calming relief and unconditional love from a furry, feathery or scaly family pet. You may, too.
Perhaps you’re familiar with the desperate plea that bursts from so many kids whenever they encounter a cute dog. “Could I have a puppy, mommy, please? Pretty please? I’ll feed her. I’ll walk her every day. I want a puppy more than anything in the world.” Or maybe this request rings a bell. “Please let me adopt a little kitty, mom. I promise to brush him and clean the litter box all on my own. i’ll do everything.” Try as she might, your child can’t fool you. You know that despite her best intentions, there’s no way she’ll take on the full responsibility of a family pet—it will ultimately be yours. And when you’re already juggling early-morning meetings, evening dinner prep and homework help, you may feel that the last thing you need is another responsibility. But mounting research shows that a family pet may enable you (not just your child) to reap rewards that more than make up for any inconveniences you anticipate.
You’re right to assume that having a dog leads to more exercise. After all, Fido will need a few outings each day. Walking him can even help relieve the guilt you feel when you skip the gym. But did you know that owning a pet—even one that doesn’t require daily strolls—can generally improve your health? “I’ve done studies showing that just the presence of an animal in the room causes people’s facial expressions and patterns of speech to be more relaxed, and their blood pressure to go down,” says Alan M. Beck, ScD, director of the center for the human-animal bond at Purdue University School of Veterinary Medicine, whose research included dogs, cats and birds. add in physical touch—stroking your cat or petting your parakeet—and you may get an even greater physiological payoff. “Touch promotes not only bonding, but also calming,” he adds.
Plus, with pets, there are fewer constraints on touch than there are with humans, says Susan Clayton, PhD, a fellow at the Institute for Human Animal Connection in Colorado. Your partner and kids might not always be available for a hug. But Frisky is always there for a snuggle on the couch, which can lower your levels of the stress hormone cortisol faster than you can run the water for that bubble bath.
What about less cuddly creatures? “Lizards offer the same relaxation response as dogs and cats,” says Dr. beck. “There’s even research done with snakes that shows they can have a calming effect, too.” Turns out that simply watching fish swim in an aquarium—in their rhythmic, soothing
way—is relaxing. Why do you think so many dentists have fish in the waiting room?
The health benefits even go beyond lowering blood pressure and providing stress relief. Researchers from the Baker Medical Institute in Melbourne, Australia, found that people who own dogs, cats, birds, fish, horses or other animals had lower triglyceride and cholesterol levels, which can reduce heart-disease risk. A bit more responsibility in exchange for a potentially healthier heart? Not a bad trade.
Woman’s Best Friend
There’s an undeniable emotional benefit to having a pet in your home. “What we get from pets is distinct from what we get from humans—it’s companionship and positive feedback without evaluation,” says Dr. Clayton. When you walk in the door after a day of dealing with a stubborn boss or stressful deadlines, a pet will greet you with a wagging tail, a nuzzle and, most important, no hidden agenda.
Pets also decrease feelings of loneliness, according to the centers for Disease Control and Prevention. This can be a big benefit to women with a spouse who travels or kids whose activities keep them out of the house a lot. You probably wouldn’t come home and talk to your plant about your day, but you can do that with your dog or cat. "Ninety-seven percent of people do talk to their dogs—and the other three percent are lying about it,” jokes Dr. Beck.
This companionship can not only enhance your mood but reduce mild depression as well. Animals may also actively try to cheer you up when you’re down or hurt, because some pets instinctively sense your feelings. Susan McClanahan, PhD, co-founder of insight psychological centers in chicago, brings her therapy dog to group sessions. “If someone is upset, my dog will go up to that person and put her head on their lap,” she says.
Dogs aren’t the only intuitive pets. “When I threw my back out, it was my cat, Pilar, who came to stay with me,” says Barbara King, PhD, author of Being with Animals. “She did the same thing when I had the flu, and when there was a death in the family. She could sense I wasn’t in my normal steady state.” Dr. King has a friend with fibromyalgia whose cat will settle on the part of her body that’s hurting even when there is no cue, like an ice bag, to indicate the affected area.
A pet’s sixth sense can extend beyond an owner’s feelings. Pets have a sensitivity to their environment that we don’t have, so your animal can act as a security system for you. Of course, we know that watchdogs can hear noises outside and bark to scare predators away, but many animals have ways of letting their owners know there are changes on the scene. “When a dog’s ears perk up, a cat’s body goes tense, a bird squawks or a bunny thumps, that alerts us that there could be something as small as a bug in the house or as serious as someone outside our window,” says Dr. King.
A pet cockatoo served as a fire alarm in a Georgia home this year by squawking “Incoming! Incoming!” over and over when smoke started coming from the utility room. The family’s 13-year-old daughter, alerted while getting ready for school, helped save the family and other pets from what could have been a deadly fire.
Animals can also tip us off to subtle changes in our own children. “When my daughter Sasha was an infant, our cat, Bardot, would often hear her waking up before I would,” says Kavitha Bindra, who works in financial operations for Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City. “If Bardot parked herself outside of Sasha’s bedroom, I knew that I should go get Sasha.”
While your relationship with your pet is something you will value, an animal can also help your family members bond. About half of American pet owners celebrate their cats’ and dogs’ birthdays, according to recent surveys—what family doesn’t enjoy eating birthday cake together?
Dr. McClanahan has found that the pets in her house (two dogs, one guinea pig, a cockatiel and several fish) have brought her closer to her three kids. “I have a fourteen-year-old son who is usually behind closed doors, but if I tell him that our dog is playing with our guinea pig, my son will come down, and it’s something for us to bond over—it’s neutral territory, something fun we all love,” she says. What’s more, each of her three children go on walks with her and their dogs—and they inevitably end up enjoying conversations they otherwise might not have had.
Pets also create countless opportunities for parents to teach kids about empathy, responsibility, nature, life and death, sociability, self-control and respect. “With pets in a household, parents are able to show children how to treat a living thing,” explains Dr. Clayton. And mastering the ability to care for an animal has been shown to raise kids’ self-esteem. Cheryl Schrader-Gerken, a school librarian in Tucson, AZ, and mother of two girls, lives with one dog, three cats, two lizards and several fish. She brings her family’s pet lizard into school as a teaching tool and finds that even the most troubled children “become extremely tender when holding Lucky the lizard. They show a caring side that they wouldn’t dare show elsewhere.”