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You worry about the commitment, the cost, the chaos. You wonder, “Do we really need an extra creature to care for right now?” Yes, you definitely do, says this veteran mom and pet lover—who has some science to back her up.

By Catherine Newman
March 08, 2021
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small family of four lying on large red cat illustration
Credit: Illustration by Valeria Petrone

When the kids were little, I craved an extra body in my lap like I craved another hole in my head or more applesauce in my hair. We didn't have a pet and didn't want one. We couldn't deal with anyone else demanding to be fed or entertained or not bathed; we didn't feel like fretting about another creature; and we didn't want to hear more noise coming out of anybody, even if it was just the happy chuffing of another well-loved animal. Our cups were full. Full to overflowing. To be honest, what we needed was not a fuller cup but a mop.

But we might have been wrong. Our pussycat Craney Crow—who we got when the kids were 10 and 7—changed our lives completely and for the best. Likewise Snapper Cat, who came to us seven years later. Both of them give us all so much more than they have ever taken. "What if we'd never gotten the cats?" we like to ask each other rhetorically, our eyes wide, just to scare ourselves for fun. Or "What did we even do before the cats?" Because the cats are still our main activity. It is not uncommon to be summoned urgently to a room where you are instructed to behold this or that cat peacefully sleeping. "Have you ever seen anything cuter in your life?" You don't respond by getting out the human baby albums and saying, "Well …" You just say, "Never."

There are about 90 million pet dogs and 94 million pet cats living in the United States right now—maybe more since the pandemic. And while each one of those animals brings something unique to its people, here are some of the recurring benefits.

1. Pets Are Furry

Okay, that's not always true and it's not an advantage in and of itself. But it might be related to the fact that petting soft animals makes us feel better—and that is a fact. Shelby Wanser, of the Human-Animal Interaction Lab at Oregon State University, Corvallis, says, "There's an oxytocin feedback loop between pets and owners." Studies show that oxytocin—the relaxing hormone we associate with falling in love and breastfeeding—is increased by being with a pet. Plus, playing with your pet can increase your levels of endorphins, more happy-making brain chemicals to add to the love-potion cocktail your pet-loving brain is mixing up for you. Despite their standoffish reputation, this is true even of cats. The kids pet the cats; the cats purr; the kids feel happy and relaxed; the kids pet the cats some more. Full disclosure: Before the cats, we had a fish, Arthur. He and the kids were in more of a dullness feedback loop. No offense to your gecko, but fur might be key.

2. Pets Make Kids Smarter

One study suggests that kids with pets might learn language more quickly and end up with better verbal skills. The pet functions "both as a patient recipient of the young child's babble and as an attractive stimulus, eliciting verbal communication from young children in the form of praise, orders, encouragement, and punishment." (Anyone who has witnessed a child chastising an animal or whispering into its ear will understand this.) This is my favorite part of that same study: "The pet may also serve as a subject of conversations that stimulate vocabulary building, when caregivers and children talk about what the pet is doing." I just read that quote aloud to my daughter, Birdy, who is 18 now, and she laughed and said, in her own little-kid voice, "The cat is washing! Look, look, he's washing his face! He licks his stripy little paw and then uses it to clean his perfect little whiskery face!" Exactly. This is a person who actually kept an illustrated "Craney Observation Journal" when Craney was a kitten, which resulted in reams of her perfect, agonized handwriting. ("He does not like being shooken around." True!)

Studies of classroom pets show similar advantages, including improved literacy. Says the Human Animal Bond Research Institute, "Children have reported liking the animal and enjoying reading to them, increasing their motivation to read." If you've ever walked in on the scene of a rapt dog (or bored cat) listening to a child read aloud to it from On the Banks of Plum Creek, this will not surprise you. And as animal-behavior expert Zazie Todd, Ph.D., author of Wag: The Science of Making Your Dog Happy, says, "If pets reduce children's stress, then the children can learn better, since stress interferes with learning." (Weirdly, my own childhood cat's name was Zazie.)

The cat united them in their doting. Loving Craney freed them from sibling rivalry, the same way that having a baby had made their father and me closer as a couple.

3. Pets Can Help You Heal

Long after we'd finished deliberately enlarging our family, I got pregnant again by accident and had a miscarriage.Then I got pregnant again, this time on purpose, and miscarried again. My obstetrician had shaken her head sadly and cited my tragic old-lady uterus, sitting deflated on the floor of my pelvis. There would be no more babies. The kitten we had just gotten helped heal me: the furry smallness of him in our bed; his needy little self; his kneady little paws with their inexplicable corn-chip smell. Plus, the cats will likely be here with us still after both kids are gone from our home, off at college, out into the world, living their own lives. It makes me understand why my own parents got a puppy after my brother and I left for college. (Although my mom admits now that the dog lying under the dining table after we'd returned to school, sighing and inconsolable, with her heartbroken eyebrows pulled up, really amplified her own sadness.)

4. Pets Give Kids Experience With Grief

I almost wrote "practice with grief," except it's not practice—it's as pure and profound as almost any grief they'll experience. (Although when Arthur went belly-up, we read poems at his fishy little graveside, and it was definitely more performance than anguish.) After Zazie (the cat) crossed over to the great litter box in the sky, I cried for a week. My eyes would well up just looking at the poster for Marley & Me because it was so obvious where the story was headed. As the novelist Carol Anshaw once put it, "Taking on a pet is a contract with sorrow." Whether this actually constitutes a benefit of pet ownership is debatable, of course. But great loss is twinned, always and forever, with great love; our kids have to learn this eventually."

5. Pets Keep Kids Healthier

Studies suggest that pets reduce anxiety and depression in kids, and that spending time with a cat lowers kids' heart rate and blood pressure. Walking a dog has particular benefits: exercise, I believe this is called. And according to an infographic I didn't understand, cats purr at a frequency of 20 to 140 hertz, which is supposed to be healing and therapeutic, and it's even supposed to mend broken bones. Whatever the hertz rate, I know that when one of the kids is sick, the cats come and curl around their legs like little vibrating hot-water bottles, and the patient feels better.

6. Pets Let Kids Be Their Zaniest Selves

Early on, we developed a personality for each of our cats—Craney, the crotchety old grump, and Snapper, the baby who says naughty things—and have spoken in their voices ever since. But, like, constantly. "Craney, smell my butt," Snapper says. (He's so bad!) Craney responds, "Snapper, leave me alone. You're disgusting." We can do this all day.

I described this to Wanser, of the Human-Animal Interaction Lab. I was wondering if there's something about these conversations that allows the kids to express stuff as the cats—certain kinds of crassness or crankiness—that they would be unable or unwilling to express otherwise. Wanser confessed that they and their roommate also talk to each other all the time in their cat's voice. "I try to avoid anthropomorphizing animals in my research," Wanser explained. "But that really doesn't stop me from developing personalities for my pets at home." I felt totally validated by science.

7. Pets Bond People

Related to our cat conversations, I'd wondered if there was research about pets successfully triangulating relationships among the people in a household. We got Craney when the kids were little and often bubbling over with mutual irritation. ("Can you please not talk about potato chips in a baby voice?" "Well, can you please not speak to me so meanly, especially when I am wanting to play with your LEGO castle?") And the cat united them in their doting. Their common purpose—loving Craney—freed them from sibling rivalry, the same way that having a baby had made their father and me closer as a couple (except in the night, when they were newborns). Even now, at 21 and 18, the kids send each other cat TikToks and cat memes and videos of our own cats sleeping, and the kids are simply more connected to each other because of the cats. This made sense to Wanser, who speculated, "If there's a tangible being shared between individuals, it would make sense to me that the shared interest and shared experience would promote a bond between those individuals."

lid reading to various pets illustration
Credit: Illustration by Valeria Petrone

8. Pets Cultivate Empathy

Dr. Todd puts it this way: "You learn to observe the dog's and cat's body language, and it gives you insight into what someone who's not you is feeling." She cited a study of young adults in the U.S., ages 18 to 26: Those who'd been involved in caring for a pet were more inclined to help neighbors and friends. One study of child development concluded, "Companion animals can help children learn to express and understand nonverbal communication and decipher intentions, which leads to improved emotional understanding and expression." In other words, the pets can't talk, so you have to pay close attention to what they're trying to tell you, which, the logic goes, teaches you to pay close attention to other beings—like people, for example—and their needs. "Does it seem like he likes that?" I'd ask Birdy when she ruffled the cat's fur in the wrong direction. And she'd look at his glowering face and admit, "Not exactly." That's rudimentary empathy.

9. Pets Teach Kids Responsibility

While it's true that kids are famous for making myriad promises before getting a pet—"I'll walk it!" "I'll scoop the litter!"—and then falling mysteriously off the planet when it comes time to, say, scrape a hair ball from the carpet or give the lizard his midday meal of live crickets, kids do rise to the occasion of care. And the advantages of that rising are enormous. As Wanser described it to me, "One of the developmental benefits of having pets in the home is that children gain more of a sense of capability and independence. And a greater concept of their ability to make a difference—to improve the life of their pet by taking them for a walk, by feeding them when they're hungry, by playing with them when they're bored" and by pulling back the cat's lips so you can see their microscopically tiny front teeth. (Okay, I added that last one.) And, Wanser said, "Kids get to recognize their impact—on pets and maybe, by extension, on people too." This might be why (in addition to the besotted doting of a dog), pets are associated with generally higher self-esteem in children.

10. Pets Help Ease the Tough Teenage Years

You might not believe it, if they're still skittering underfoot, but it's true: Someday your child will be a teenager. Maybe they will still cuddle in your lap, but probably not. You know who they will still cuddle, though? The pet. (And when your kids are even older, they'll come home to see those pets too. Pets can be a kind of glue.) Dogs are accepting, nonjudgmental sources of unconditional love, which is just what teenagers need when the world can feel so harsh and unjust. Pets forgive, share their feelings authentically, and offer calm, grounding support.

Over the past year, while my daughter and her friends have not been able to gather and loll around all over each other like a litter of puppies, our cats—and the physical affection they offer—have been more important than ever. "Come lie in my arms forever," Birdy says, dragging the cats up to her face so she can kiss their cheeks and striped foreheads. And I want to say the same to her—but I know better.

This article originally appeared in Parents magazine's April 2021 issue as "10 Highly Subjective Reasons to Get a Pet." Want more from the magazine? Sign up for a monthly print subscription here

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