As the holidays approach, many of us get to spend more time at home – and more time with our furry, four-legged companions. English novelist George Eliot wrote, “Animals are such agreeable friends. They ask no questions, they pass no criticisms.” In this chatty age when anybody can mount an electronic soapbox and spout off, the quiet demeanor of a pet is a welcome relief.
What’s so appealing about pets? The classic answer 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 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. Psychology Today writer Carlin Flora states, “Today’s pets have cuddled, cooed and purred their way to elevated status in the family. And in our alienated world, they 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. Pet relationships, 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 in my office. Indeed, many people think of their pets as their children. So I try to help people correct the mistaken belief that it’s somehow wrong to grieve. It would be irrational not to grieve! The late comedian and pet lover George Carlin, in reference to pets’ limited lifespans, calls them “little bundles of tragedy.” Perhaps 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, 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!
It’s great that pets add so much to our lives, though 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 those things. In fact, the fortune of domestic creatures has improved dramatically as the human condition has improved. Though we humans enjoy unprecedented material comforts, we don’t seem to have an especially good handle on personal relationships. Divorce rates are as high as ever, and some people seem at least moderately dissatisfied with their personal lives.
So, bring on little Sophie, Oliver, Maggie, Molly and Max. By giving you the opportunity to care for them, these loving little creatures not only make you feel more important, they also make your life more important.
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