A couple of years ago, I interviewed a psychologist about how to make marriage last and one of his prescriptions surprised me: get a dog. I love dogs, and always have. I smile at them and try to make eye contact. There are few things that turn my head as often as an adorably fluffy pup being led down the street.When I grab coffee with friends during the warmer months, we often stroll over to the dog park, sit on a grassy slope and watch the mishmash of breeds cheerfully running wild.
But single in my city shoebox, I have long thought of personal dog ownership as a total headache: twice daily walks and guilt about leaving the dog home alone, damage to beloved leather boots, vet bills, the necessary boarding every time you leave town.
But, despite rational arguments to the contrary, the point that the psychologist was making was that dogs – for all of their required maintenance – confer certain emotional benefits. The reason a dog can improve a marriage was explained thusly: you get home from work and you’re exhausted and kind of grouchy – as is your spouse. When you walk in the front door, instead of sniping at each other over whose turn it is to order Thai food, you are greeted by the smiling face and wagging tail of your beloved Fido (unemployed, unconditional lover extraordinaire). Before or just after you put down your purse and laptop and kick off your heels, you bend down to pat his head, rub his belly and meet his warm, happy eyes. Now, when you see your spouse, you are more relaxed, feeling more generous, and less likely to be snappish or irritable. Ergo: happier, more successful marriage.
This theory has always made a lot of sense to me – and I’ve read parallel studies related to the positive impact of therapy dogs for the sick and elderly. But what about cats, dogs’ less-eager-to-please cousins? According to a recent story in USA Today – Cats can make owners happier, healthier and gentler – feline companions have much to recommend them. In the United States, there are 16 million more pet cats than dogs, and cat owners are notoriously devoted. (See, for example, the purported co-dependence between single ladies and their cats.
Writes reporter Janice Lloyd: “Research shows that being able to care for a pet improves our morale, helps validate us and encourages us to take care of ourselves, says Rebecca Johnson, director of the University of Missouri’s Research Center for Human-Animal Interaction. The body of research is leading more retirement communities and universities to roll out the welcome mat for pets. Is one pet better for you than another? A cat can’t make you healthier by begging with leash in mouth to go out for a jog, but a purr can lower blood pressure and quiet a stressed-out brain, research shows. And they insist on compassion. They’re enforcers, Johnson says. ‘A dog will let you bang it on the head and still love you. A cat won’t do that. Children have to learn to be gentle to cats or the cat will go away.'”
It seems like the answer is clear, and the debate doesn’t even really matter: more love and affection of any kind – whether human, canine or feline – will make you happier and increase your quality of life. (Though I can report that my personal experience with hamster ownership was mixed.)