When shopping for the perfect pet, you'll hear lots of "oohs" and "ahhs", "he's so cute," and 'she's so cuddly." Rarely, if ever, are you likely to hear, "I want a pet who will save my life." But that may be exactly what you are buying.
In fact, recent studies, including one conducted by Saint Louis University with Miami University, prove that pet ownership has tremendous health and wellness benefits for "everyday" people.
Reporting on the Saint Louis University/Miami University research study, lead researcher Allen R. McConnell, Ph.D., explained. "We observed evidence that pet owners fared better, both in terms of well-being outcomes and individual differences, than non-owners on several dimensions. Specifically, pet owners had greater self-esteem, were more physically fit, tended to be less lonely, were more conscientious, were more extraverted, tended to be less fearful and tended to be less preoccupied than non-owners."
Unlike many studies, the Saint Louis University/Miami University study didn't simply examine the correlation between pets and their owners. Instead it examined the difference between pet owners and non-owners in several distinct areas. In all cases, pet owners were happier, healthier and better adjusted than non-owners.
That's not surprising, says Becky Krueger, director of Education and Public Relations for the Animal Protective Association of Missouri.
"Pets fill a home with love and affection. You can be having the worst possible day, but then you come home and your dog is just so excited to see you. How can that not brighten your day?" Krueger asks.
While dogs may get high praise for their tail-wagging welcomes, all pets actually have the ability to reduce stress, lower blood pressure and raise endorphins (those feel good neurotransmitters that produce a general feeling of wellbeing).
Krueger touts the benefits of cats, guinea pigs, rabbits, and even reptiles and fish.
Cuddling up to an iguana? Well maybe cuddling is out, but companionship is not. Caring for and talking to pets (yes, we talk to pets, even to the ones that can't bark back) is one of the chief reasons pet-owners tended to be less lonely and more conscientious than non-owners. Just remember that some pets require significant more care than others, Krueger advised.
"Cats definitely require less attention than dogs," Krueger said. "In fact, cats can fend for themselves even if left alone for a few days. For someone who has an active, independent lifestyle a cat may be a better choice."
And yes, the decision about what type of pet to own really does come down to lifestyle.
"What do you want from pet ownership?" Krueger asks.
Do you want a partner in physical fitness? Maybe you want a dog who will play frisbee with you, or one who can go on long walks? Maybe you want a cat who will curl up in your lap, or fish you can admire from across the room?
"We are very lucky at the APA to have wonderful adoption counselors who can help potential owners find the perfect pet," Krueger said.
(Editor's note: Adoptable animals at the APA of Missouri include only dogs, cats and the occasional domesticated rabbit.)
Krueger also suggests that would-be pet owners be realistic.
"Puppies and young dogs require a lot of energy and attention from their owners, and the definition of 'young' changes from breed to breed and dog to dog. For example, seven is still consider 'young' for smaller breeds, but most larger dogs will be slowing down by that age. And," she cautioned, "animals can develop many of the same ailments as older adults."
Still, she says, older pets make great companions. To facilitate older pet adoptions, the APA offers reduced adoption fees on members of its Lonely Hearts Club — animals that are five years old or older or have been at the shelter for six months or longer.
All pets available from the APA are spayed or neutered, microchip equipped and up-to-date on their vaccinations.