Our Pets Improve Our Health

While it may be difficult to get Americans to collectively agree on the many issues, it seems that when it comes to pets and the value we place on them, there is little disagreement. The 2015-2016 American Pet Products Association survey reported that an astounding 65% of all American households have a pet. An identified 79.7 households have dogs–over 100 million of them in all. Cat owner households total 42.9 million. Fresh water fish, birds, reptiles and horses, along with small animals such as rabbits, hamsters, and others make up another 25-27 million pets.  

Americans, it seems, have also come to view and treat their pets in human terms. No longer satisfied with relegating the family pet to its own domain, today’s pet lovers are demanding the highest quality products and services for those they love. The idea of buying a simple dog chew or catnip toy now takes a back seat to designer sweaters and jewelry for our beloved companions. The current trend of dog hotels instead of kennels, indoor animal toilets, perfume, a hugely popular service “doggie dates” and exotic animal sitting services have found their way into today’s pet economy.

For the most passionate pet lover, faux mink coats, lumberjack vests, designer jackets, matching jeweled leather collar and leash sets, Halloween costumes, and holiday outfits are becoming part of the new “pet fashion.” Safety seats for transporting pets in vehicles are also becoming popular. One of the larger pet expenditures is pet food. These days the pet food aisle looks strikingly similar to the rest of the “human food” aisles in chain grocery stores. Specialized, balanced gourmet meals are readily available in the refrigerator section as well as a plethora of animal treats, vitamins, and supplements. Special diet foods for the senior pet population offer life extension and prolonged health.

The country's household expenditures on pets for 2015-16 was in excess of 62.75 billion dollars. It is easy to imagine that this number must be a mistake as this is more money being spent on pets in the United State than the gross national product numbers for all but 64 countries around the world. This 62.75 billion dollar figure also represents almost double the approximately $35 billion dollars Americans spend on going to movies, playing video games, or for listening to recorded music.

The approximate 20% of non-pet households are for the most part made up of individuals with allergies, or who live in apartments or other environments that do not welcome pets, and those who have no time left in their over-scheduled lives to care for a pet. It seems people of all ages, ranging from infants to very elderly, enjoy and welcome the company of pets. The presence of pets is so popular today that some nursing facilities now have therapy pets at the facility on a regular basis. The one down side to this practice is that sometimes the residents start arguing and competing over who gets to keep the cat, dog, or bird with them for the day.

What fuels our passion for pets? It is really quite simple. Our pets love us unconditionally. They listen to us when we speak, provide companionship without politics or the agenda of most relationships. They accept our love and affection the way we chose to give it, without complaint, and they provide us in return with affection and loyalty. They are the ultimate loving family member, and we are now treating them as such. Can anyone blame us?

Social networking has become the way we communicate and “do” relationships. These days it is often over e-mail and texting messages that we are starting relationships or ending them, sharing major life events–even proposing marriage. The intimate contact of human connections we had even 15 years ago before the dominance of the internet and cell phones is now being replaced by our pets.

Pets are not only beloved companions, but they are also taking on the role of healers. Dogs have been long known for their service as seeing eye dogs, but the use of dogs and other pets in many areas of healing and health monitoring are becoming more widespread. Dogs who alert their companions for seizures or “sniff out” cancer or horses that assist with helping autistic children to interact with others are easily found on the news or internet.

A recent study by researcher Dr. Karen Allen at the State University of New York at Buffalo identified that individuals suffering from hypertension when adopting a dog or cat had lower blood pressure readings in stressful situations than their counterparts who did not have a pet companion. The National Institute of Technology Assessment Workshop, Health Benefits of Pets, identified that pets provide greater psychological stability, which us protects not only from heart disease and other stress related conditions but also reduces depression. In the same study, pets have been shown to lower the cost of health care as individuals with pets make fewer doctor visits, especially “for non-serious medical conditions.”

A Perdue University study demonstrated that when seniors face traumas or other forms of adversity, the affection received by their pets and the bond between them helps prevent depress and loneliness. As a means of enhancing our psychological and physical well-being, pets have the power to love us, heal us, and help us to live longer. If only we could get other humans to do so with the same honesty and loyalty that our pet companions provide us.

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Our Love Affair with Pets

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In an economy that has been reeling in double digit unemployment and unending home foreclosures, the last thing you would expect is that last year we spent a collective 50 billion dollars on our pets. Even more surprising is the fact that this figure represents an 8 billion dollar increase in the last 3 years, during one of the worst US economic downturns.

Pet Care Costs

It is easy to imagine that this information must be a mistake as this represents more money now being spent on pets in the United State than the gross national product for all but 64 countries around the world. A staggering 25 billion of those dollars was spent on pet health care and medicines. These are out of pocket dollars for services not covered by insurance. Maybe the healthcare reformers could learn a thing or two from this data.

Over the last 5 years, pets have grown in popularity, and so has the value we place on them. The 2011 American Pet Products Association (APPA) survey reported that an astounding 62% of all American households have a pet living with them. Americans have come to view and treat their pets in human terms, providing them with everything from designer clothes and jewelry, gourmet pet foods, corrective dental braces and even plastic surgery to improve a pet’s self-esteem.

Pets With Human Responsibilities 

While the pet product industry is doing a brisk business, the majority of pets today share beds or sleeping quarters in their households and are treated as beloved family members. It can even fall to the family pet to hold a family together through difficult times. The shared custody of pets after divorce is now commonplace.

But what fuels our passion to treat our animal friends as humans?  What does it suggest about what may be missing in our human relationships that we are ever increasingly treating our animal companions better than our extended family members or even our partners or spouses?

One of my students recently shared that she had given her mother a puppy for her birthday last year. The student did so because she knew her mother and father’s relationship was emotionally distant and, as a result, the mother was away from the home a great deal. She hoped the puppy would keep her around more often and that would help the relational rift of the parents.

At first, the mother didn’t want the pet and looked to place it elsewhere. In a very short time, the pet became the center of the mother’s life. She home cooked or prepared all of the dog’s meals, and she took it for acupuncture treatments every two weeks for a minor leg injury. The dog has a groomer, trainer, nutritionist and is currently interviewing for a doggie play group. The mother was around the home more often but now placed her whole focus and most of her time on caring for the pet.

What about this woman’s relationship with the husband? The student reported that her mother and father are civil to one another but there is no warmth or affection between them, unlike the unconditional and extravagant love the mother lavishes on the pet. Is it safer to love a pet rather than deal with the disappointment, conflicts and hard work of achieving a loving relationship with those closest to us?

Missing Relationships

Am I suggesting that loving our pets is wrong? Absolutely not–my family is blessed with not only a fabulous Maltese canine but also a yard full of llamas, sheep, horses and goats. Our pets are important to us. Pets enhance psychological and physical well being. They love us, heal us and help us live longer.

Numerous studies demonstrate the healing power of pets. A Perdue University study demonstrated that when seniors face traumas or other adversity, the affection received from their pets and the bond between them helps prevent depression and loneliness. Animals provide emotional support, which is an essential component for health and healing. There is a long list of health benefits from the companionship of animals.

But are we going overboard? The American Pet Product Manufacturers Association (APPMA) estimates that this year millions of pet owners will purchase a Valentine's gift for their pet, spending an average of $17 for the gift. Consumers will also spend an average of $6.30 on friends, $4.97 on classmates and teachers, and $3.41 on co-workers. What does this tell us? Maybe that we feel emotionally safer to love our pets or that perhaps it is less work and less vulnerable to love our pets than to develop close relationships with most of the humans we interact with on a daily basis.

Our pets love us unconditionally. They listen to us, don’t complain or express disappointment in who we are. They provide companionship without the politics or agenda of most human relationships.  They accept our love and affection the way we to give it and best of all–they happily return it. This is a wonderful thing, if it does not become a substitute for intimate human relationships. Emotional intimacy with others of our breed is critical to good health.

Emotional And Spiritual Intimacy 

We are complex beings who require physical, emotional and spiritual intimacy with others. Social networking has become the way we communicate and “do” relationships. These days it is often over e-mail and text messages that we are starting relationships or ending them, sharing major life events–even proposing marriage. The intimate contact with other human beings from even 10 years ago, before the dominance of the internet and cell phones, is being replaced in large part by our pets.

To achieve balance and wholeness in our lives, we need to keep an eye on how we allow technology, and the maddening pace of modern life, to cut us off from one another, create fear and competition that robs us of the beauty and fulfillment of intimate and loving human relationships.

Our pets can be an essential part of the fabric of our lives, but in the end our challenge and our hope is to develop human relationships within which we can share, exchange, empower and enoble one another to make our lives and the lives of others more rewarding and fulfilling. 

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