Pets are life’s little perks

English novelist George Eliot wrote, ‘Animals are such agreeable friends — they ask no questions, they pass no criticisms.’ In this chatty age when just about anybody, qualified or not, can mount their electronic soapbox and spout off, the quiet demeanor of a pet can be a welcome relief.

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 those numbers considerably.

What’s so appealing about pets? The classic answer from just about everyone is that pets provide “unconditional love.” I agree, but the term ‘uncomplicated love’ might be more appropriate. They’ll provide it when you don’t deserve it, and there are no unhealthy strings or hidden agendas attached. What you see is what you get. 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, writing in Psychology Today, states, “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.”

Other than small children, few humans can provide this kind of simple, 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 certainly among the more difficult situations I face across in my office. I try to help people correct the mistaken belief that it’s somehow wrong to grieve. Indeed, one of the most traumatic events one can experience is the loss of a child, and for many people, pets are, to some extent, their children. It would be irrational not to grieve! The late 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 that sad inevitability, pets are clearly good for our health. A study of a thousand Medicare patients conducted by the University of California 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. 

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 purring softly by a sunlit window.

Psychology Today also noted that pet names have become more human than ever. In 2004 the most popular name for male puppies was Max. For females, the favorites were Maggie and Molly. Even more 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!

I think it’s great that pets add so much to our lives. Yes, they are a responsibility and increasingly, an expense (have you checked the cost of veterinary care recently?). But pets bring a value to the human condition that other humans, as important as they are, just can’t provide.

I’m not saying animals are better than people. Cats and dogs don’t produce the food that I eat, or repair my car, or invent space travel, electricity or the Internet. I’m delighted 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 has improved. Though we enjoy unprecedented material comforts, human beings don’t seem to have an especially good handle on personal relationships. Divorce rates are as high as ever, and many 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, they also make your life more important.