A pet’s love is a first-rate Rx for health and happiness

Scene 1: An attractive young woman suddenly encounters a pair of hungry, bright yellow eyes. Scene 2: She peers fondly into those yellow eyes, as the attached mouth happily munches away. Scene 3: The cute logo for the latest feline cuisine flashes across the screen, and our young woman speaks those magic words: “I love how important my cat makes me feel!’

The cat food commercial is right: People love their pets! In a world of troubled human relationships, human-pet relationships are stronger than ever.

According to the American Pet Products Manufacturers Association, 39 percent of American households own at least one dog, and 34 percent own at least one cat. That makes 65 million dogs and 77 million cats owned in the United States today. Fish, birds, rodents and even reptiles increase these numbers considerably.

What’s so appealing about pets? The classic answer I hear from just about everyone is that their pet provides “unconditional love.” I agree, but the term ‘uncomplicated love’ is more appropriate. There are no unhealthy strings and no hidden agendas attached to a pet’s love. What you see is what you get. They’ll even provide it when you don’t deserve it. It’s true that once you get to know your pet better, certain complexities may emerge that may rival human behavior, but in the end, you know you can count on your pet to love you no matter what. Your dog or cat will never take you to court. It will never cheat on you, steal from you, betray you or verbally abuse you. Pets require feeding, love and attention—but they give back plenty in return.

Carlin Flora, associate editor of Psychology Today, writes, “Today’s pets have cuddled, cooed and purred their way to elevated status in the family—and, in our alienated world, sustain deep emotional connections with the humans whose lives they share.” How many humans can provide this kind of simple, uncomplicated, predictable love? Think about it: Many marriages end up in separation or divorce. Thoroughly happy couples seem to be in the minority. Pet relationships, on the other hand, leaving aside the sad cases of abuse and neglect, virtually never end in “divorce.”

The death of a beloved pet is one of the more difficult situations I come across in counseling sessions. I try to help people correct the mistaken belief that it’s somehow wrong or irrational to grieve for their lost pet. We all know that one of the most traumatic events one can experience is the loss of a child. Well, for most people, pets are, to some extent, their children. This is a real, genuinely felt loss. It would be irrational not to grieve it. Comedian and pet lover George Carlin, in reference to most pets’ limited life spans, calls them ‘little bundles of tragedy.’ OK, a bit cynical—but true nonetheless.

Despite the inevitability of that loss, pets are clearly good for our health. A study of a thousand Medicare patients conducted by the University of California at Los Angeles found that those who owned pets had fewer doctor visits than those who did not own pets. Australia’s Baker Medical Research Institute evaluated over five thousand men and women for heart disease risk factors. Out of that group, the pet owners had lower blood pressure and lower cholesterol levels in comparison to the non-pet owners. Nursing homes and similar institutions pay for the services of therapy animals to assist with patients’ physical and emotional health. And it seems to work.

Simple observation confirms these findings. Whether or not you care to take on the responsibility of a pet, there are few things more uplifting than a dog gleefully running along the beach. Or a cat, softly purring by a sunlit window.

Psychology Today also noted that pet names have, in recent years, become more human than ever. According to PetData.com, in 2004 the most popular name for male puppies was Max. For females, the favorites were Maggie and Molly. Quite a few conspicuously human-sounding names landed in the top 100 of New York City’s dog database, including Bella, Sophie, Lily and Oliver. We’ve come a long way from Spot, Fido and Frisky!

Some people might shake their heads in disapproval, but I certainly don’t. I think it’s great that pets add so much to our lives. Indeed, they are a responsibility and, increasingly, an expense (have you checked the cost of veterinary care recently?). But people cherish their pets because they bring a value to the human condition that other humans—as important as they are—just can’t (or won’t) provide.

I’m not saying animals are better than people. Cats and dogs don’t produce the food that I eat, or repair the car that I drive, or discover things like space travel, electricity and the Internet. I’m delighted that these things exist, and that unusually bright humans were able to create them. In fact, the fortune of domestic creatures has improved dramatically as the condition of human beings (at least in the civilized world) has improved.

In the United States and the Western world generally, we enjoy unprecedented material comforts. But the fact remains that human beings don’t seem to have an especially good handle on personal relationships. With divorce rates as high as ever, most people seem at least moderately dissatisfied with their personal lives.

So, bring on Sophie, Oliver, Maggie, Molly and Max. These loving little creatures, by giving you the opportunity to care for them, not only make you feel more important, but also make your life more important.