Pets Boost Singles' Health -- and Happiness
I was at a social event not long ago when the topic of pets came up. A woman my age who was recently divorced said she was considering getting a cat but feared it would throw her into "spinster land."
"It's just such a cliché," she said, frowning. "I want to get back in the game, not retire from it!"
To which I countered: "The spinster with a cat may be a cliché, but it's a scenario that works really well for most of us!"
Luckily, I got a laugh. I am fairly militant on the joys of pet ownership -- especially for single people, especially as we age. Sixty-three percent of American households have a pet, according to the American Pet Products Association, which makes me wonder if the other 37 percent knows what they're missing.
Many are the work days that are so stressful they might end in the bottom of a martini glass, but for the purring machines that land on my lap the second I put up my feet. Science has shown that the mere act of holding and petting an animal lowers the blood pressure and sends your dopamine and serotonin levels soaring. This is the premise behind the San Francisco SPCA's much-heralded Animal Assisted Therapy program, which is the oldest of its kind in the country. Years ago, while doing a newspaper story about the program, I visited an Alzheimer's hospital ward and was stunned to tears to see how patients who barely spoke or interacted with others lit up like children when a cat or bunny was place in their lap.
No doubt about it: Pets are powerful medicine. The recent bestseller The Bond, by Wayne Pacelle, president of The Humane Society of the United States, makes the case that we are historically and even biologically bonded to our animal companions. Pacelle observes that we don't just provide them with a nice life; they vastly improve our lives, as well. He argues that "animals are at the center of our lives, not just as a backdrop."
And for singles, they can play the all-important role of family. A 2010 AP/Petside poll showed that 50 percent of American pet owners consider their pets to be as much a part of the family as any person in the household. The survey showed that single people of both genders, but especially single women (66 percent), were likely to say that their pet is a full member of the family. Only 46 percent of married women shared the same viewpoint. In comparison, 52 percent of single men said so, compared to 43 percent of married men.
I recently spoke with Ken White, president of the Peninsula Humane Society and SPCA, an agency at the forefront of the animal welfare movement, and he shared these insights on singles and their pets.
SA: Why are pets so good for single people -- especially those at midlife or older?
KW: I've been at this work for a long time, 34 years now, and I've seen the phenomenon so often: the single person with a dog as both pet and child, the person alone with a cat as both companion animal and boyfriend/girlfriend/spouse. Where it might sound lonely, instead what I have seen is that an extraordinary loving closeness develops. The animal both provides companionship and purpose. For all of us, our animals can be -- and so often are -- one part of our healthy lives, and that's even more the case with people who do not necessarily have a lot of human 'significant others' around them.
SA: What about single women? Do we need to fear the stereotype of the spinster or crazy cat lady?
KW: The whole 'pets and single person' story can easily be perverted into a tale of loneliness, but that stereotype is not necessarily either fair or true. I have a number of single friends who live extraordinarily busy and full lives, but they just don't happen to have someone to go home to at night. This is a choice for them. [What's] also a choice is sharing that night at home with a dog or a cat.
SA: What's the best thing a pet can bring to our lives?
KW: Animals make great friends, confidantes, pals. They don't care what show you watch on TV or whether or not your hair is washed on a weekend morning. They are there for you, you for them. In my book, that's both a healthy and likely a health-making relationship.
SA: I have several friends who might be prone to couch-potatodom, but for their dog who demands a brisk walk twice a day. But what happens if a single person gets a new flame who does not support their pet ownership?
KW: I can't tell you the number of times people have said something to me about wanting to adopt this or that animal, but not sure if the boyfriend or girlfriend will be happy about it. My advice: Look at the odds. Most relationships are short-lived, and most marriages fail. Do the math. With the average dog or cat living 13, 14, 15 years or longer, you're far better off with the pet.
SA: How can pets enhance our social lives?
KW: Years ago, at a conference on animals in therapeutic situations, I heard someone with a lot of degrees use the term 'social lubricant' to describe pets. I hate the term, but the point is a fair one. Walk down the street with a happy, friendly dog on a leash, and you will not be walking far without getting at least a half-dozen smiles -- if not meeting a new friend.
Resources: Websites for Single Pet Lovers
1. Pet PeopleMeet: site created for the sole purpose of matching pet owners
2. Dog Lover: dating site for dog owners
3. Date My Pet: dating site for owners of all kinds of pets; users can choose dates with just humans, or dates with pets included
4. Pet People Fishing: just what it sounds like; go fishing for a pet owner you find attractive