Our family dog may be the nicest "person" on the planet. Okay. He's not perfect. He does bark at the postman every day. And you have to make sure the trash bins are covered or he'll grab and shred every used tissue, then scatter the pieces around the house.
But he's a love machine. He wants nothing more than to be in the room with the humans in his family or on a lap, licking a hand. And this feels very good to us. We hope he likes it, too.
Don't worry, cat lovers. We love cats, too. And theoretically we love pigs. We realize not everyone feels this way about pets, or any animal for that matter.
But more than half of U.S. households have one or more pets living there. In some estimates, as many as three-quarters of homes with children have one or more pets.
People are very attached to the animals living with them: In an Australian survey published in 2006, more than 90% of people said they felt very close to the family pet.
I can't promise that you'll feel better if you bring a pet home, but owning a pet is associated with better mood and quality of life.
Most of the research on the bond between humans and animals revolves around dogs, so that is the focus here. The principles may apply to other pets.
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A History of the Human-Dog Bond
Our hunter-gatherer ancestors certainly spent a lot of time interacting with animals. They tamed many and even invested some with special god-like status.
The relationship between humans and dogs goes back at least 10,000 years and probably longer. Experts say that dogs began to evolve from wolves about 40,000 years ago. According to biologists, wolves and dogs are still genetically almost identical. The main difference is in their relationships to humans.
Dogs — and their wolf ancestors and cousins — are social animals who, like humans, have a predisposition for pack or group behavior. As the writer, Mark Derr, described in Dog's Best Friend: Annals of the Dog-Human Relationship, hunter-gatherer humans came into regular contact with wolf packs. They may have even learned a thing or two from watching how wolves worked together to capture dinner.
Human and wolf groups are also similar in social structure. Each cares for and educates its young. Survival depends on communication and cooperation.
Humans also can empathize with these animals. We recognize their moods and intentions from how they hold their heads, position their bodies or move their tails.
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How Pets Make a Difference
There's been a generation of research on how owning a pet affects human health and happiness. For example:
- One early and widely publicized study from the 1980s found that pet owners survived longer than non-pet owners after a heart attack.
- In the 1990s, a group of researchers in Australia reported that blood pressure and lipid levels were lower in pet owners than non-pet owners.
- In Britain, people in a study were given a dog or cat. The people were questioned 6 and 10 months later and reported that their psychological well-being and self-esteem had improved. They also exercised more.
- In a survey of pet and non-pet owners, pet owners were less likely to report feeling anxious and depressed, and less likely to be lonely. They also found it easier to get to know people and could identify more people in their neighborhoods for support in a crisis.
Here are some of the ways researchers think pets make a difference:
- Pets increase opportunities for social interaction. Take a dog for a walk and strangers start to greet you and strike up conversations. People are more likely to talk to one another when a dog is present. In that 2006 Australian survey, more than 50% of people said their pets helped them meet new people and make friends. Almost two-thirds felt that having a pet present made it easier for them to have a conversation. All this social contact reduces isolation and loneliness. Even if you don't feel lonely, this kind of activity contributes to the social good by promoting conversation and friendship in the community.
- Physical contact with a pet is soothing. Petting an animal while lounging on the sofa or in bed at night isn't a substitute for human-to-human contact. But it has similar physiological effects. It improves measures of stress and may therefore promote physical and emotional health.
- Pets provide companionship. Positive close relationships are known to reduce anxiety and stress. Pets can be fun to watch and fun to play with. In many cases, it is easier to be spontaneous and easygoing with an animal than with another human. Being with a pet you love can be one of the places you are most yourself.
- Dogs don't hold grudges. Sigmund Freud, a dog-lover himself, pointed out the advantages of relating to dogs. His daughter, Anna, quoted him: "Dogs love their friends and bite their enemies, quite unlike people, who are incapable of pure love and always have to mix love and hate." Freud thought that, unlike humans, dogs had an ability to be loyal and affectionate. And he may have envied a dog's mental health. Dogs, and other pets, are thus a source of non-critical support. And they are very forgiving. No matter what mean thing you said five minutes before, a dog is much more likely than a human to set the scolding aside, and to give and receive affection.
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The Give and Take of Owning a Pet
Animals have emotional needs, too. You have to be ready to help and nurture them. Pets must be fed and groomed. Even when it's 10 degrees outside with 2 feet of snow on the ground, you must give them the opportunity to "do their thing." You have to take them to the vet for routine care, think about their reproductive needs, and make sure they are well behaved, especially around people who fear them.
If you don't particularly like animals or respond to them, they won't make you happy. If anyone in your home doesn't like animals or is allergic to them, don't invite one into your home. And although it is fairly rare to catch an illness from your pet, it can happen, so consult your doctor if you have an illness that makes you more vulnerable to infection.
One drawback is unavoidable: If you become attached to your pet, you will mourn its death.
Our dog is a love machine. He makes us happy, and his loving nature more than makes up for any barking or paper shredding. With any luck, your pet will make you happy in similar ways.
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Michael Craig Miller, M.D. is editor-in-chief of the Harvard Mental Health Letter and an assistant professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. Dr. Miller has an active clinical practice and has been on staff at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center for more than 25 years.