I love taking my dog, Stella, to our local dog park. Sometimes I think I enjoy the experience even more than she does. Nothing makes me laugh more than seeing her zipping around the park at top speed, ears flat against her head, eyes wide, tongue hanging out of her mouth in that expression of pure joy that dogs master so well. Whatever trials and tribulations my day has wrought go right out the window when I watch her play.
Dogs are “man’s best friend,” a name earned not just for their loyalty but also for their unconditional love for us—and we love them back. People in the U.S. spend an increasing amount of money each year on their animals. And it’s not just dogs; we’re spending more and more money on all of our pets, from fish, rodents, and reptiles, to cats, and even horses. In 2012 Americans spent $53.3 billion, and that number is expected to hit $55.5 billion this year. If the cost of owning an animal is so high, how exactly does this relationship benefit us?
One recent study points to various physical and psychological benefits that can accompany owning a pet. In his study, titled Friends with Benefits: Pets Make Us Happier, Healthier, Allen R. McConnell, PhD talks about three different experiments that he and his colleagues conducted. In the first, pet owners were found to show greater self-esteem, were more physically fit, less lonely, more conscientious, more socially outgoing, and had healthier relationship styles (less fearful and preoccupied) than non-owners. In the second experiment, dog owners felt that their pet fulfilled their social needs (greater sense of belonging, meaningful existence, self-esteem, etc.), and that they were happier and healthier than they would be if they didn’t own a pet. In the third, researchers found that when subjects wrote about their pets it was just as effective as writing about a friend when it came to staving off feelings of rejection.
If you are allergic to dogs, or you just don’t like them, there’s still good news. Researchers also found that the type of pet didn’t matter. Various species—including birds, horses, lizards and goats—benefited their owners in similar ways to cats and dogs.
Still, owning a pet isn’t for everyone, and as indicated above it can be very expensive. But personally, I can’t imagine my life without a furry friend to greet me at the door, lick my tears away when I’m sad, and remind me to appreciate the little moments of joy in everyday life.