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Pet ownership holds health benefits, but is it right for you?
A variety of recent articles have highlighted the health benefits of pet ownership. Are cats and dogs really the best medicine for everyone? - photo by Kelsey Dallas
With soft, orange fur and little pink ears, Minerva the kitten is almost too cute to resist.

Fortunately, Colleen Patton, a Ph.D. candidate in linguistics at the University of Arizona, didn't have to because, after spending years agonizing about the possibility of becoming a pet owner, she was finally confident in her ability to care for a cat.

"I wanted a cat for ages, because I grew up with family cats," she wrote in an email. She knew about litter boxes, cuddling and the best cat foods; it was the timing that gave her trouble.

In addition to long hours spent in class or at the library, "field research is a major part of my studies," Patton said. She wanted to wait to bring home a kitten until she had attention to offer, instead of just love.

Minerva is the answer to Patton's summer blues, caused by the end of a bustling academic year.

"The start of summer can be a rough time for me emotionally," she said. "A kitten gives me a purpose."

Patton is far from the only pet owner to credit a cat or dog with boosting well-being. A variety of research studies, as well as anecdotes offered by animal shelter workers, pet stores and friends, present pets as an easy remedy for stress, loneliness and other woes.

However, anyone who has cleaned a litter box or walked a dog in the rain can attest that these benefits are only one side of the story. Pet ownership is hard and costly work, and the decision to adopt a furry friend should only be made after introspection and careful planning, according to pet experts.

By being honest with themselves about the sacrifices required to raise a cat or dog, people can pave the way for an easy adjustment, enjoying the health benefits of pet ownership while also providing a loving home, said Sandra Barker, a professor of psychiatry and director of the Center for Human-Animal Interaction at Virginia Commonwealth University.

"There are many things to take into consideration" before bringing home a new pet, she said. "The worst thing would be to impulse buy."

Are pets the best medicine?

At the Center for Human-Animal Interaction, Barker leads research into how relationships with pets enable people to lead healthier, happier lives.

Her team has explored how even short visits with therapy dogs reduce anxiety in hospital workers and patients alike, as well as how allowing an employee to bring a pet to the office can boost workplace satisfaction.

In the latter study, researchers measured the presence of cortisol, the stress hormone, in workers who brought their dogs to the office, and then compared these measurements to the cortisol levels of co-workers without dogs and co-workers who left their furry friends at home. They also asked workers to assess their own stress, surveying on job satisfaction and the workplace environment.

Employees who brought their dogs to their desks reported the lowest stress levels, consistently scoring 10 to 20 points lower than their colleagues on the stress scale researchers created using the surveys and cortisol tests.

This research added to what Barker called a mounting collection of evidence supporting a link between pet ownership and improved well-being.

"Where we see the research accumulating is with pets buffering the impacts of stress," she said. "(Pet owners) tell you they feel calmer" and that shows up on cardiovascular indicators.

Studies have also shown that pet ownership boosts physical activity, which, in turn, can lead to weight loss, as well as improve mood.

In 2011, researchers from Michigan State University found that people who regularly walk their dogs are 34 percent more likely than people without pets (and lazy pet owners) to complete at least 150 minutes of aerobic exercise each week, which is recommended for all adults by the government's physical activity guidelines.

"Obviously you would expect dog walkers to walk more, but we found people who walked their dog also had higher overall levels of both moderate and vigorous physical activities," said researcher Matthew Reeves to WebMD.

An additional way both cats and dogs boost well-being is by providing emotional support for their owners, which Patton's story reflects.

In a study published in 2011 by the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, a team of researchers from Miami University and Saint Louis University reported that pet owners have higher self-esteem and lower levels of loneliness than people without pets.

Potential pitfalls

Between fond memories of a childhood pet and pictures friends post with their animals on social media, the opportunity to enjoy these health benefits through pet ownership becomes hard to resist, said Erin McMullin, an adoption specialist at Best Friends Animal Society in Salt Lake City.

And yet potential owners have to be patient, letting logic, instead of just emotions, guide their decision, she said.

McMullin often has to remind people of the less glamorous parts of pet ownership. She reviews the time commitment, explains likely expenditures and emphasizes the importance of finding the right fit before you sign adoption papers.

"I'm protective of the animals. It's not good for them to come back," she said.

In other words, McMullin guarantees that people's minds (and pocketbooks) are prepared instead of just their hearts.

"People sometimes forget they need more than the adoption fee," she said, noting the costs of feeding, housing and caring for a cat or dog can quickly add up.

Within the first year of ownership, average expenses for a dog, depending on its size, range from $1,314 to $1,843, while cats cost around $1,035 annually, according to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.

KC Theisen, the director of pet care issues at the Humane Society of the United States, said that by asking tough questions, shelter workers like McMullin serve as a valuable resource for potential owners.

"The worst outcome is regret," she said, noting that bringing a pet home when you aren't ready is bad for both you and the animal.

"The best piece of advice I give to people thinking about (pet ownership) is to talk to the staff in a shelter. Let them steer you to your best option," she added.

But even a supportive shelter staff can't help someone who hasn't been honest with themselves about why they're looking for a furry friend, said Megan Bergert, a recent graduate of Yale Divinity School who adopted Graham, a Pekingese and poodle mix, in March.

You're ready to bring a new dog or cat home "when you're ready to give life-changing love and not just receive it," she said.

Practical advice

Although Bergert has cared for cats for years, she didn't take the decision to adopt a dog lightly. She and her partner researched rescue dogs for months, hoping to avoid surprises.

"We tried to find the perfect dog for us but the process reminded me that it doesn't ever work that way," Bergert said. She's thrilled with Graham, but also grateful she approached dog ownership with knowledge of both the costs and benefits.

According to Thiesen, adopters like Bergert embody the kind of careful pre-planning required to bring a new pet home with confidence.

"In order to make a concrete decision to adopt, it's important to think about the amount of time you have to give, as well as your basic lifestyle requirements," she said. "There's a big difference between a coach potato dog and a marathon-running dog, just like there's a difference between an 8-week-old kitten and a 4-year-old cat who will sit on your lap while you watch TV."

She added that stability is important when bringing home a four-legged friend. Dogs and cats alike need time and attention and enjoy owners who keep a relatively consistent schedule.

If you're still uncertain if you're ready, pet-sitting is an excellent opportunity to experiment with pet ownership, Thiesen noted.

"Volunteer to baby-sit for someone else's pet for a weekend or week. Try out the daily obligation of feeding, cleaning, walking and exercising and see if it really does fit," she said.

Similarly, Barker encouraged potential pet owners to increase their exposure to cats and dogs before getting one of their own.

"A lot of people will volunteer with shelters or rescue groups," she said. "It allows them to spend time with animals if they're not in a position to own their own pet or if they're unsure what kind of pet is appropriate for them."

Although she and her new pet still have a lot to learn about one another, Patton said she is still confident she made the right decision.

"Minerva just snuggled right up and melted my heart," she said.

Are you ready?

Experts say potential pet owners should reflect on the following concerns before bringing home a new cat or dog:

  • Finances: Do you have enough money for food and veterinary care?
  • Lifestyle: Are you looking for an active pet that will help you stay fit or a quiet couch companion?
  • Stability: Will your personal and professional lives follow relatively predictable routines for the next one to two years?
  • Experience: Have you spent enough time with pets whether through volunteering at a shelter, watching a friend's animal or growing up with a dog or cat to know that ownership is right for you?
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