How Dogs and Cats Protect Your Health
In 2022, it’s getting harder and harder to find an issue on which Americans completely agree. Political and social divisions today are deep and festering.
There is, however, one matter that draws the country together in unprecedented numbers. America is a nation of pet lovers.
Several surveys, including one conducted by the highly regarded American Pet Products Association, indicate just how deeply devoted we are to what researcher Dr. John Bradshaw calls “the animals among us.”
Seventy percent of American households own a pet. That’s 90.5 million families. One late night comic suggested people are more likely to own a pet than to take a daily shower.
Dogs and cats are the most popular pets. Sixty-nine million homes have dogs, forty-five million own cats.
As a whole, we take good care of these four-legged treasures. In 2020, the most recent year for which we have reliable data, Americans spent $104 billion dollars on pet care and feeding.
It’s safe to say that most of us would agree with what television game show host and animal activist Bob Barker always said: “A person who has never owned a dog has missed a wonderful part of life.”
Understanding why humans care for pets has been a motherlode topic in research science for decades. The reasons are obvious to anyone who has ever loved a dog or a cat.
Animals connect with us through unconditional love, the rarest relationship wavelength.
No pet ever gaslights an owner. No pet is unfaithful or disrespectful. They are completely nonjudgmental — if you failed a math test, didn’t shave, put on some extra weight, your pet doesn’t care. Pets really know us for who we are, warts and all, right there, wagging its tail or purring.
Pets are entirely dependent upon us. They elicit the best in our protective and nurturing instincts. Studies show that people are more empathetic to their pets than to other humans.
Most of all, pets validate us. We all crave positive regard, something a pet can give in a non-verbal but totally persuasive way.
As Sigmund Freud said, “I prefer the company of animals more than the company of human beings.”
Not surprisingly, empirical data documents how pet ownership fosters physical wellbeing. Rustin Moore, DVM, PhD, said there is “an emerging and expansive body of evidence of the positive health benefits whether physical, biochemical, social, behavioral, emotional or psychological, on people interacting with pets.”
Those who own pets have lower blood pressure, less depression, less risk of heart attacks, and lower cholesterol levels than non-owners. They also experience less loneliness and tend to be happier. Turns out all those dog walks and games with cats release the happy chemicals (serotonin, dopamine) which lead to sanguine feelings.
In their book, Between Pets and People: The Importance of Animal Companionship, Alan Beck and Aaron Katcher concluded pets have “a definite, positive effect on human health” because they add an emotional balance to our lives. “Pets are not a ‘miracle’ drug like penicillin…like other components of our lifestyle, they make a small but significant contribution to our health,” Beck and Katcher wrote.
Dr. Bradshaw believes humans get along so well with animals because it’s essentially hardwired into our intrinsic nature. Over time, pets became part of our adaptation to the world. Bradshaw also points to the incredible ability dogs have to recognize and respond to our moods — they can observe our body language, compare it to our previous behavior, and respond in “microseconds.”
The only certain deleterious moment between owner and pet takes place at the end of the relationship. Pets have short lifespans — the death of a pet is akin to the loss of a family member. It can be particularly brutal on children, when the passing is their first experience of grief.
Mourning for the pet can be aggravated by those who don’t understand the gravity of the moment. In an interview with Allison’s Book Bag, pet counselor Betty Carmack said: “Too often pet loss has been a disenfranchised grief wherein the loss isn’t recognized as equal to other more recognized losses. We have made great strides in decreasing the disenfranchised aspect of pet loss, but we still have a long way to go. I still hear people say how they have gotten responses such as ‘it’s just a dog, for heaven’s sake. Go get another.’”
Over 90 million families in the US understand why “go get another” is not quickly possible. As copious research has shown, the bonds between pets and humans are too precious to be easily replaced.