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Our Enduring Relationships with Companion Pets

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Do you have a special friend waiting at home to greet you when you come home from a long day? The experience of sharing our lives with companion pets has been going on for millennia.

Humans and domesticated animals have a special relationship that dates back at least 30,000 years — long before cows and horses were called into service. The archeological record indicates that wolves started to become tame after they approached humans to beg for food scraps (sound familiar, dog owners?). Remains of dogs and cats have been found at burial sites around the world, and we know from art and tombs that the Egyptians revered cats.

What is a companion pet? And how is that different from a service animal, an emotional support animal, or a therapy animal? What kinds of pets make the best companions? What is the story on allergies and pets? And how do you know what kind of pet is right for you? 

Pet Ownership in the U.S.

Many people share their lives and homes with companion pets. These animals provide numerous physical and mental health benefits and offer unconditional love to their humans. 

Just like humans, companion pets are as varied as the individuals who share their lives with them. But dogs and cats are by far the most popular companion animals.

The American Veterinary Medicine Association (AVMA) estimates that

  • 38.4% of the U.S. population lives with dogs, more than 48 million households.
  • 25.4% lives with cats, more than 31 million households.
  • 2.8% of households own birds, and 0.7% have horses.
  • Many other households have “specialty and exotic” animals like fish, reptiles, rabbits, pet livestock, and small mammals.

Why do so many people choose to live with pets?

The Benefits of Companion Pets

Research from the the Human Animal Bond Research Institute (HABRI) demonstrates numerous positive health effects of companion animals. Let’s take a look at just a few.

  • Mental Health. Pets contribute to positive mental health by reducing our worries, stress, and depression. They often notice when we’re sad or upset. This intuition is why animals are being trained to assist people with PTSD, anxiety, and depression. Also, the practical work that comes with caring for a pet is good for us. The routine of feeding and walks gives pet parents a sense of purpose.
  • Physical Health. The presence of animals has an impact on blood pressure, and living with cats and dogs reduces the risk of death from cardiovascular diseases, including stroke and heart attacks. Children who grow up with pets have lower rates of asthma. People who walk with their dogs see significant physical benefits from these daily walks.
  • Aging and Pets. Some studies show that having a pet helps older people feel less lonely. Older people with pets have also reported reduced pain, discomfort, and stress. Animal-assisted therapy has been shown to reduce depressive symptoms and improve cognitive functioning.

Most of the research on the animal-human bond focuses on companion animals (pets), but some animals perform extra duties to keep people healthy and safe.

Companion, Emotional Support, Service, and Therapy Animals

Some pet parents want to know the similarities and differences between companion animals, emotional support animals, service animals, and therapy animals

All of these animals provide companionship, but some have a special designation that allows their owners to bring them places where pets aren’t allowed — or to live in pet-free housing. 

What are these categories and rules?

Companion Animals

Companion animals are pets. They provide that feeling of unconditional love to their humans, and they help us deal with trauma, stress, loneliness, and grief. In fact, Pets for Patriots writes: “We celebrate the extraordinary, innate therapeutic abilities of everyday companion dogs and cats. It is why we focus solely on companion pets to achieve our mission.” Dogs, cats, rabbits, and birds are all good options for coping with loneliness and depression. 

Service Animals

Service animals are dogs (and some miniature horses) that are trained to help people with disabilities participate in social and work activities. They help people who are blind or have low vision, individuals who are deaf or hard of hearing, or those who have physical or psychiatric diagnoses. An individual with a service dog must have a disability as defined by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), and the animal must be trained to do specific tasks related to the disability. Service animals can pretty much go anywhere with their owners, live in pet-free housing, and fly on an airplane with their owner for no additional fee.

Emotional Support Animals (ESAs)

The ADA’s definition of a service animal only includes dogs and miniature horses, but any animal can be designated an emotional support animal (ESA). A qualified doctor or mental health professional needs to generate a “prescription” for an emotional support animal. The list of conditions that can qualify someone to have an ESA are anxiety, depression, learning disabilities, attention deficit disorder, chronic stress, and post‑traumatic stress disorder. Unlike service dogs, emotional support animals do not require any training or licensing. That doesn’t mean they’re not helping, of course. People who struggle with mental illness often report that petting or holding their animals helps them feel less anxious and lonely. Emotional support animals are allowed to live with their owners in “no pets” housing, but they are not allowed in public places where service animals are allowed.

Therapy Animals

Therapy animals are trained to provide emotional support and comfort to people other than their owners. They are mostly well-trained dogs who visit hospitals, schools, nursing homes, or other institutions. They are evaluated by veterinarians and trained by an animal‑assisted intervention organization. They don’t have a legally protected right of access to public facilities, and they have to follow all the rules for pets.

As you can see, all of these animals provide different types of support. But let’s not forget the single biggest benefit: companionship.

Choosing Your Companion

How do you go about choosing a pet that’s right for your lifestyle and home? A dog’s needs are different from a cat’s — or a hamster’s. Here are some things to consider as you look for your ideal companion

  • Can you afford the costs of caring for your pet, including veterinary care?
  • How long will you be away from your pet? Do you work long hours or travel frequently?
  • Who will care for your pet when you are away?
  • What future changes might occur in your living situation or lifestyle that would affect your ability to keep your pet in years to come?
  • Do local laws or your housing arrangement limit your choice of pet or number of pets?
  • Are you able to provide the amount of attention or exercise your pet will need? 
  • How many years are you willing to commit yourself to care for a pet?
  • Do you already have any pets? If so, will your current pet accept another pet of the same or a different species?
  • What are you looking for in a pet? To lounge with you at home or go on rigorous runs with you?
  • Will you be able to manage their grooming needs?

Where Do You Find Your Companion? 

Adopting from a reputable humane organization or a rescue organization that has a foster system helps you avoid the unscrupulous operations known as “puppy mills.” Stores that work with rescue shelters can be a good option. Many wonderful animals are living in shelters and foster homes. 

The benefits of a foster pet are that a foster family can talk to you about the animal’s needs and behaviors and report on how they get along with other animals and humans. The best rescue, adoption, and foster groups make sure that before you get one of their pets, they are spayed or neutered, microchipped, and have their vaccinations. Most organizations provide opportunities for you to meet a pet before adopting, and even to take them home for a trial visit before committing. 

If you have your heart set on a specific breed of dog or cat, there may be a rescue, shelter, or foster organization that rescues your favorite breed. Do an internet search for the breed with the word “rescue,” “shelter,” or “foster.” Otherwise, look for reputable breeders that care about the health and welfare of the pets they breed (the breeding pair and the resulting puppies or kittens); check that they’re not breeding for undesirable genetic traits and that they look for people to take in those cute bundles of joy before they breed. Visit the breeding facility to ensure that the animals and where they live are clean, and that they have all received appropriate veterinary care.

What About Allergies?

Some people are allergic to the dander or saliva that comes with dogs and cats. The American Veterinary Medicine Association says that over 50 million people in the United States have allergies, and 24 million have asthma. Although children who grow up with pets have lower rates of asthma, pets are a trigger for some people with asthma. Allergies can be managed with medical care, and even veterinarians and other animal workers have strategies for managing allergies. But it’s still important to be aware of the possibility of allergic reactions in your family and in people visiting your home. 

Despite common misunderstandings, there is no such thing as a nonallergenic dog. But some breeds of dogs and cats are considered “low‑allergen” because they shed less. Birds, reptiles, fish, and short‑haired rodents might be a better choice for people with severe allergies to dogs or cats. Keep in mind that people can also be allergic to these kinds of pets, including rabbits, rats, and mice, so some choose to get reptiles, snakes, or even tarantulas.

Planning for Pet Care

Living with companion animals is a great joy, but no one should “impulse buy” a pet. Too many animals end up in shelters because of a mismatch. Sometimes the cost of pet care can be a burden for low-income people. Thankfully, resources are available to help with veterinary care and other costs associated with pet ownership. 

That’s why we recommend doing your homework and learning as much as you can about the animal to match them with your energy, lifestyle, and home. Be flexible and honest with yourself about what you can handle. 

And then get ready for one of the best relationships of your life.

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