Perhaps you’re familiar with the desperate plea that bursts from so many kids whenever they encounter a cute dog. “Could I have a puppy, mommy, please? Pretty please? I’ll feed her. I’ll walk her every day. I want a puppy more than anything in the world.” Or maybe this request rings a bell. “Please let me adopt a little kitty, mom. I promise to brush him and clean the litter box all on my own. i’ll do everything.” Try as she might, your child can’t fool you. You know that despite her best intentions, there’s no way she’ll take on the full responsibility of a family pet—it will ultimately be yours. And when you’re already juggling early-morning meetings, evening dinner prep and homework help, you may feel that the last thing you need is another responsibility. But mounting research shows that a family pet may enable you (not just your child) to reap rewards that more than make up for any inconveniences you anticipate.
You’re right to assume that having a dog leads to more exercise. After all, Fido will need a few outings each day. Walking him can even help relieve the guilt you feel when you skip the gym. But did you know that owning a pet—even one that doesn’t require daily strolls—can generally improve your health? “I’ve done studies showing that just the presence of an animal in the room causes people’s facial expressions and patterns of speech to be more relaxed, and their blood pressure to go down,” says Alan M. Beck, ScD, director of the center for the human-animal bond at Purdue University School of Veterinary Medicine, whose research included dogs, cats and birds. add in physical touch—stroking your cat or petting your parakeet—and you may get an even greater physiological payoff. “Touch promotes not only bonding, but also calming,” he adds.
Plus, with pets, there are fewer constraints on touch than there are with humans, says Susan Clayton, PhD, a fellow at the Institute for Human Animal Connection in Colorado. Your partner and kids might not always be available for a hug. But Frisky is always there for a snuggle on the couch, which can lower your levels of the stress hormone cortisol faster than you can run the water for that bubble bath.
What about less cuddly creatures? “Lizards offer the same relaxation response as dogs and cats,” says Dr. beck. “There’s even research done with snakes that shows they can have a calming effect, too.” Turns out that simply watching fish swim in an aquarium—in their rhythmic, soothing
way—is relaxing. Why do you think so many dentists have fish in the waiting room?
The health benefits even go beyond lowering blood pressure and providing stress relief. Researchers from the Baker Medical Institute in Melbourne, Australia, found that people who own dogs, cats, birds, fish, horses or other animals had lower triglyceride and cholesterol levels, which can reduce heart-disease risk. A bit more responsibility in exchange for a potentially healthier heart? Not a bad trade.