Strolling Amok

Pops goes on tour.

7 Reasons You Don’t Need a Pet

Still not using the litter box, you say?

Still not using the litter box, you say?

I read an article by one Erin Dostal in Prevention magazine that describes the benefits of having a pet in your house. I’ve spent decades owning cats and dogs and, frankly, the advantages and benefits listed below just haven’t outweighed the drawbacks for me. It’s a very good thing that many folks benefit from having a pet of some kind but, for me, Does Not Apply. Why? I’ve followed each of her points with my own. Remember, this is just me, and my own experience talking.

7 Reasons You Need A Pet

Furry friends do more than keep you warm at night—research shows that pets offer a whole range of health benefits

By Erin Dostal, Prevention Magazine

Fluffy, Fido, Sniffles, Mittens, Mr. Whiskers…Behind every cute pet name sits a fur– (or scale–, or feather–, or whatever–) covered, powerful health booster. Study after study shows what anyone who’s ever spent a sick day in bed with her cat knows: Having and caring for a companion animal is great for both your physical and emotional health.

Oh cats, fine. Your sinuses packed and dripping, all you have to do is groggily shuffle over once to toss more food in its bowl. Dogs are a different story when you live in the suburbs. Feverish and fighting off a bronchial infection, try inhaling mosquitos in the humid night air, or shivering in the cutting whirl of sleet. With a dog, you’ll spend your sick day in bed recovering from repeatedly standing out in bad weather, in your robe, waving awkwardly at the neighbors.

Here are 7 ways owning a pet can benefit your health and help keep you young: 

Emotional Health

1. Makes you less of a couch potato 

Nothing makes you spring into action faster than your pooch’s I’m-about-to-pee-on-the-new-rug-unless-you-take-me-out-NOW warning whine, and a new study shows owning a pet keeps you in motion. Pregnant women who own dogs are more likely to be active than those who don’t, according to the University of Liverpool. Researchers say dog walking, a low-risk, low-intensity exercise, is perfect for women who want to up their activity level and prevent excessive weight gain during pregnancy. Pregnant or not, walking your pet is a fantastic way to sneak in a little extra, super-fun exercise.

That’s as tragic an excuse for buying a dog as I’ve heard so far. You’re pregnant, so buy a dog for exercise. How long does pregnancy last these days? Then once you’ve had the baby, what? You’re losing sleep and exhausted from all the work surrounding its care. Perhaps you’re returning to work, dropping off your baby to day care. The dog goes…where? This Reason You Need a Pet doesn’t win any awards in my book.

Also, if you think that an “I have to go now and I can’t wait” dog walk in the middle of a cold, windy downpour is “a little extra, super-fun exercise”, then have at it. It’s especially fun when they realize that they’re miserably wet and can’t do anything once they’re out there in the blowing rain. So you need to keep yourself and them out there until they somehow get productive, or you’ll come inside and immediately be listening to them indicate that they need to get back out there again, or cleaning up after them back in the house. Are we having super-fun yet?

A pet keeps you in motion in your sleep, too. Only two things will instantly rouse me from a sound, deep sleep – the sound of a retching cat or dog, and the distinctive sound of same urinating somewhere in the room. The subconscious goal is to prevent them from vomiting on your bed covers, or the rug or carpeting, or furtively planting a wet mine in the dark path to the bathroom. The steady stream of urine makes a sound that lets you know that, once again, you’d better grab the paper towels before it soaks deep into the flooring, and that you’ll need to put on slippers first. It’s not a pleasant wake-up call at two AM.

2. Keeps you from being a hermit 

Having a pet you can take for walks outdoors is great for your relationships, and can help foster your interpersonal skills, too, says Alan Entin, a psychologist and past president of the American Psychological Association’s Division of Family Psychology. “Being outside with a dog helps you meet people,” he says. “You meet other dog owners and that helps improve your social life.”

You don’t need a dog to get you to interact with dog owners, particularly when your dog is trying hard to attack theirs, or vice versa. Want to meet people and develop interpersonal skills? Walk over and say, “Wow, what a beauty/cutie. I’ve heard these are great dogs. How’s he/she been for you?” They will talk your ear off, and you don’t have to keep it from killing and eating your own dog, because you don’t have one. Do not ask specifics, such as, “Does he have a sensitive stomach?” or “Say, does your home/RV smell like a wet dog or urine?” Handy tip: If social interaction is what you’re after, it is far better to appreciate someone else’s dog or cat than to actually have to own one yourself. You’ll never have to watch it destroy your favorite collectible book, chew the table leg, ruin the expensive new flooring, or prompt a “where is that smell coming from?” query. Life, simplified.

Besides, out here in RVland, some folks have dogs in order to enable them to be hermits. They’re tied out to keep people from coming over to say hi or ask for local info, and bark and bark when they’re left outside while their owners are taking day-long tours. A handy tip-off is when the owner is outside working on something at a table and ignores both you and his snarling and barking dog as you walk past on the road. Normal dog owners shush the dog, wave, and say “Hi”. Those aren’t hermits.

Vaguely related to this is the drawback of the “chains of pet ownership”. Are the kids moved out and living life on their own? No matter, you’re still chained to the pets and always will be. Would you like to stay longer at a gathering? Give in to an impromptu urge to pick up and visit another town or picturesque area a day away, or stay overnight there? Forget about whimsy and living spur of the moment. Prearrange, board and pay, or take ‘em with, pay extra for the hotel/motel – if you can find one – and deal with them the entire time. Pets chop off many options at the knees, keeping you from both going and staying.

3. Lets you laugh at yourself 

Many owners like to talk about their pet’s antics (sometimes to the dismay of coworkers, family members, and total strangers), which is one way that furry friends bring levity into everyday life. “They bring laughter and humor into our stressful lives and encourage us in playful ways,” says Froma Walsh, co-director of the Chicago Center for Family Health and a Professor Emerita at the University of Chicago. Walsh, the owner of a Lab mix named Shasta, says that Shasta keeps her from becoming too absorbed in her work. “She always comes up to me wanting a treat or a walk,” she says. That distraction is often not only welcome, but healthy, she says.

Listeners of your pet’s antics sometimes have a sense of dismay for good reason: the stories you’re telling show that your pet’s behavior is sometimes disturbing, and your reaction that you find that endearing is even more disturbing. They will not always be laughing with you. Their dismay comes from the thought, “Why do they put up with that?” and “Oh my. This is cute?” If, to you, problematic behavior, such as hungrily gobbling down feces, can be amusing, then go for it. If the particular trait actually is endearing, then others can enjoy that without having to engage the downsides that you apparently endure with such glee.

Professor Walsh, being retired, is fortunate enough to no longer have to be very productive. Do her lesser co-workers, who do still have to be productive, enjoy the distraction of having her dog in their workplace? Try solving puzzling, intricate problems to deadline while your concentration keeps being interrupted by something. Academia is not real-world, and part of one’s normal job is to allow others to do theirs.

4. Prevents your blood from boiling 

You might not notice it, but when you pet your dog or cat, your body releases oxytocin, a stress-reducing hormone associated with emotional bonding. The really cool thing, Walsh says, is that your pet releases oxytocin, too, fostering a sense of connection, calmness, and release of stress.

This point about petting is entirely accurate, for what it is. The really uncool thing is that it can be largely undone by Reason #1, particularly when company is present, or you’re in the middle of a TV special or Presidential announcement or football game conclusion that won’t be rebroadcast. That’s when stress-inducing hormones are released, undoing the “emotional bonding” one and building your vocabulary. Or, when the dog and the cat fight again, or it’s just the cats, or some critter is repeating that longstanding mystery cause of puking that you can’t seem to find a cause for. See if that sense of connection, calmness, and release of stress is working for you when you’re having to strip and refinish the wood floor after secretive vomiting, or talking to the carpenter about the cost of replacing the three chewed windowsills. Prevents your blood from boiling? I think not.

5. Takes away the loneliness 

Pets provide companionship, which means that they can help their owners—particularly those who live by themselves—feel less lonely, according to a study from Miami University and Saint Louis University. “People with pets probably feel less lonely because the pet provides a sense of social support,” said Allen R. McConnell, a professor at Miami University and an author of the study. In a similar study, after participants were induced with a sense of loneliness, the “lonely” person found just as much solace and help in thinking about her dog or cat as she did their closest human friend, McConnell said.

Okay, I’ll give Professor McConnell that one. If you’re not comfortable with yourself and need animal companionship to feel complete, a pet can be a fine idea. Such people tend to talk about their pets the most, though (see Reason #3) and are more likely to embrace and not correct undesirable and destructive pet behaviors than others. I submit that they are also more likely to keep a beloved pet far past that point of agony that any caring human would ask a suffering pet to go. If “I can’t put him to sleep, I love him too much” is your mantra, then I wouldn’t like to see what you’d put it through if you hated it.

6. Adds candles to your birthday cake 

In a study that looked at patients who were discharged from a Coronary Care Unit, researchers found that those who had companion animals to come home to had a better survival rate during the next year than those who didn’t. The psychological comfort of pets may be linked to living longer, suggests the study.

Notice the weasel wording: “suggests” and “may”. These are the same folks in Reason #5, making it redundant. As for me, if I’m coming home from a coronary care unit, I’m going to require rest, quiet, routine, and the absence of anything that will suddenly raise my heart rate and blood pressure. See Reason #1 and my aversion to standing outside in thunderstorms, as well as the feel of misplaced urine, vomit or feces on my bare feet while I’m on my way to the bathroom at night. Cats always seem to howl or fight just as you’re finally dropping off into a nice sleep. A dog’s incessant yapping is neither calming for you nor your unfortunate neighbors, who may not share a conviction that “They’re just being dogs. That’s just what they do”. Also, consider the effect on your fragile, mending heart of an 80-pound dog who has a fixation on suddenly lungeing toward blowing leaves, squirrels, or other dogs a block away. Next thing you know, someone will be leaning over you back in the CCU asking, “So, what happened? You were supposed to be taking it easy.” Answer? “I have a dog.”

Don’t be fooled. Pets can remove candles on the cake, too. A dog unexpectedly underfoot is a big one, especially for elderly women with osteoporosis, and most especially for ones on stairways. Ever come around a corner and slide on pet puke? It’s a plot, I tell you.

7. Helps you love yourself 

Pets can instill a greater sense of self-worth and self-esteem in their owners, and can even help people who suffer from mild depression, Entin says. “The most important thing about a dog is that they give you unconditional love,” he says. “They don’t ever judge you, and that’s pretty powerful.”

Yes, it is powerful. Overall, psychologist Entin has me on this one, but it isn’t universal. Like me, some folks just shouldn’t own pets – they just aren’t geared for it. In some form or other, they can’t deal with the downsides (which are never, ever mentioned anywhere), or they have false expectations fed by articles like this one, or they expect human thinking and behavior from a pet (which I refer to as the Disney Syndrome). The cable TV show The Dog Whisperer can be very instructive in this regard.

“Every kid needs a pet” and “a pet will help solve your problems” promotions wind up creating hordes of mistreated, abandoned, ailing and unsocialized animals, puppy mills, packs of starving feral dogs in forest preserves and rural areas, and euthanized pets by the millions.

Dogs have been domesticated and bred for thousands of years to excel at specific tasks, like guarding, predator and vermin control, hunting and/or attack, retrieval, and herding. Tiny niche vestiges of these exist today, such as herders, guards, hunters, retrievers, military and police attack dogs, drug sniffers, guide dogs, and companions to those with crippling diseases. Today, some of these are artificial duties, their necessity having changed from essential tasks to sports (hobbies).

Once the late 1800’s hit, so-called vanity breeds became increasingly popular. Their purpose was merely to project an image of their owner and impress other people in their owner’s circle of influence. To do that, they had to serve as companions and project an image. Impressing other people always costs money, and that spells an opportunity to make money. Dogs began to be bred for nothing but looks, not mental disposition or the physical ability to perform specific tasks. As this fad morphed into a trend and everyone decided that vanity pets were an essential commodity, nearly all breeds evolved with them.

The end result today is, in my view, disastrous. Witness the AKC shows of today, judging, awarding, and rewarding breeders for conformity in appearance and carriage to changing standards – standards driven entirely by cosmetic exaggeration, not performance or suitability to task. Setting aside the often bizarre new breeds and sticking with the traditional old standards of, say, 1950, many a trophy winner today would, in days past, have been instantly rejected outright as an inbred, counterproductive misfit. The vast majority of purebreds today are subject to physical and mental disabilities that render them useless to the tasks that they were originally created for.

The saddest example is of course the English Bulldog, unable to breathe, run, or live more than a few years before succumbing to its genetic reward. The sole contribution of these poor animals seems to be to keep sympathetic veterinarians solidly in the black. Want a German Shepherd or Golden Retriever? Neither still looks like they used to. Watch for bad hips developing, and an early trip to have them put down. Boxers don’t live very long these days, either. Breathing and joint problems, eye ailments, and cancers abound. Some breeds, such as the famed St. Bernard rescue dogs, must now be selected carefully for fear of mental instability. Even a few retrievers suffer from this now. Some smaller breeds cannot always be housebroken. A yappy, vicious Dachshund with a terminally bad back is no bargain. But they all look good (to the AKC judges). Whatever is exaggerated sells, and you have to ask yourself if it’s worth it to destroy a dog’s quality of life just to have it appear a certain way. Puppy mills and their pet store clients feed off of all this. So do pet spas, upscale groomers, and purveyors of “designer breeds”. As far as health goes, an AKC registration means exactly squat. Many puppy mill dogs now have certified AKC registration, which implies things to you that are simply not so. That’s the point of registering them.

Just have to own a dog, and have no purpose in life for him other than being there when you want him to be? Ask yourself some questions and research what the downsides of dog (or cat) ownership are. Are you up for dealing with digestive problems and behavioral issues? Are you gone 8-9 hours a day? The cat couldn’t care less, but is that fair to a dog, really? Will it merely exist to mollify you, at your convenience? Will you be after unconditional love and acceptance, yet expect to treat the pet as you do an appliance? Unwavering loyalty should be a two-way street.

Still game? Watch The Dog Whisperer. Watch it until you’re sick of it. Research breeds more for mental traits than for physical ones. Some will require a lot of exercise, and it’s a cruelty to expect them to lie patiently next to your chair all day. Go to a local dog shelter. Look for a mutt in a size and temperament that you can manage. It’s a bit of a crapshoot, but in general, a mixed-breed will prove to have fewer ailments and have fewer mental limitations. What you’re watching out for are signs of problems that might make the animal suddenly and unexpectedly hazardous to children, yourself, your spouse, visiting friends, etc. Unless you’re an experienced trainer with clairvoyant insight, do not assume that things will just get better with a little kindness. The odds are that it has had a bad owner and has been mistreated in some way. Look for a friendly one that seems to be looking for a good owner in a decent home. Take your time. A dog eager to escape from the hellhole of a full-time cage can be convincing, yet an entirely different story at home. You can luck out, and even bring a frustrated dog to good terms, but know your own limitations. There are plenty of other abandoned dogs still waiting in those cages that may be a better fit for you.

Think I’m overstating the downside issues? Look at the number of pets in cages at any one shelter. Consider the number of pet shelters. Then consider the fact that the animals in all those cages are basically this month’s load. The rest had to be killed to make room for these, month by month. Not everyone should have a pet, or is equipped to deal with one. Since there is money to be made by convincing people that they need pets, this is the end result, and it’s a heartbreaking cruelty from start to finish. Take away the profit and the rah-rah boosting, and pet shelter workers would no longer have such convincing cause to feel overwhelmed and depressed.

By the way, you may well find an exotic breed there, the cast-off of some urbanite wanting to project a personality or image, and who found that it was too much for them to deal with. They, hopefully unlike you, acted out of vanity and then found the dog to be too much of an imposition or inconvenience. Now it’s merely a victim of selfish thoughtlessness. Now you need to research breed characteristics in earnest – and in print, not on Internet Forums of owners or breeders. If the breed is a suitable behavioral fit for you in general, you may find a real gem at the local shelter. Just take the long view, and keep your checkbook handy for the vet.

Don’t care for a used dog? Prefer a puppy? Have a few thousand dollars to burn on a dog? Fine. Just stay clear of pet stores and ads in the classifieds or online by commercial mills masquerading as individual legitimate breeders. You will merely be making it worthwhile for them to contribute more to the basic problems. See if you can find one of the very few old-school backyard breeders left. Ask around, and ask a lot. An AKC champion, for you as a non-breeder, means precious little. In many cases it’s merely a guarantee of future health problems. Find and look at the mother (I hate to say “bitch”), her living conditions, and her temperament. Then do the same for the father. (I’m okay with “stud’, as I was once one myself a long time ago.) If you are unable to develop a relationship with the original, true breeder of the puppy, you’re contributing to the problem.

If you’d like an entirely different take on dog breeding, look into the UKC, the United Kennel Club. Their shows focus on dog breeding for health, temperament, performance, conformation, and looks. They keep more closely allied to the traditional purpose of breeding: healthy breeds that have the mental dispositions and physical abilities to excel at task. The tasks are of course artificial versions of historic real ones. Rather than sloughing pans of food into overcrowded cages a couple of times a day, these folks consistently interact with their charges, because that’s the only way they’ll develop a potential champion. There’s just no alternative. Check it out! Or this! Or perhaps this, where you can also have access to the names and towns of individuals barred for life which – I’m taking a wild guess here – means they were found to be puppy mill owners who tried to get in just like they did in the AKC. Fail.

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4 thoughts on “7 Reasons You Don’t Need a Pet

  1. Doug

    1st thing I hate about pets , god forbid they get sick, vets are just like plumbers and will rape you if they see the emotional attachment you have to your pet, especially if they see it’s gonna die soon.

    2nd I ask tenants who have pets ? What happens if it’s rent day and your pet gets run over or gets sick and the vet bill will be $5,000 who do you pay first ?
    Your landlord or the vet saving your pet ?

    Jerry

    • I guess I’ve been really lucky on vets, having picked one-woman operations. They care about the animal, they know you’re not rich but want whatever can reasonably be done, and even they don’t subscribe to a “save it at any cost!” scenario for a family’s mutt that is loved and well cared for. They do their best and seem to know when and when not to throw in the towel.

      My son has a practical answer to that cost thing at his larger clinic: “Oh, man… Well, how much will it cost to put him down?” Considering that his boxer is older but not decrepit yet, they tend to get alarmed and start dropping the cost of the procedure because they probably think it must be another family member’s pet, not his. His dog is a sweetheart and he’s been through a lot of adventures with it and loves it – but they don’t know that. So when it comes to the clinic, it’s merely a negotiation strategy. It doesn’t work miracles, but it does work. He likes that.

      By the way, I don’t hate pets. I enjoy them, within reason. Especially happy, friendly, quiet dogs, and cats that want to be petted. I just don’t want to live with them, and there’s no need to when so many are around.

  2. Jana on said:

    Ed,

    This is your best post ever, even if it is off you usual topic. I wish every person on the planet considering getting a pet would read it and take it to heart. I am one of those people who prefers to have pets in my life, but there is no question that at times they can be a serious drain on time and resources.

    To anyone thinking about getting a pet: if you don’t have the time or desire to spend quality time (as the animal would define it) with the animal, the ability to provide appropriate training (obedience classes are everywhere but require more time and money), the resources to provide a high quality diet and appropriate vet care, the savings to handle a serious emergency, and the commitment to care for the pet for it’s lifetime, don’t get an animal. Enjoy friends’ pets, walk dogs at a shelter, volunteer at a rescue. Get your pet fix without putting an animal at risk.

    And for goodness sakes, people, neuter your animals. Millions of animals are euthanized or die of starvation or disease every year. Don’t add more to that number.

    • Jana, you made me smile by beginning with Ed, because you are not the first to have the actor Ed Begley come to mind when addressing me! Too bad he’s no relation, as I could trade on that pretty well.

      My mind does tend to wander a bit now and then, and no topic is entirely safe around me. What I see makes me consider things, sometimes in the bigger picture. In my case, seeing cats wander off from distraught owners who need to roll on to the next site, and seeing obviously lost dogs in the desert that are too wary to be approached makes me start churning inside. I’ve been in a position to have to care for pets for many years when no one else would, and am now enjoying living entirely according to my own whims. Nice change of pace. Thanks for commenting and reminding me again that “loving one’s pet” means much more than what you can get from the critter.

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