Adopting a pet into your home is a major decision. There are many factors to consider, and potential owners must consider the amount of time and support involved. And let’s face it: Once you own a pet, you are immediately an essential part of that animal’s life. But what can you gain from this ambitious endeavor?
An Addition to the Family
After taking home that ball of fur, you’ll immediately get a sense of what is in store for the future. As animal behavior specialist and University of Florida zoology professor Matthew Smith, Ph.D., describes it, “Having to care for the life of another sentient being puts your own life in perspective.”
New pet owners will find that they are responsible for the well being not only of their families but also of another creature.
“You are more likely to not worry about minor stresses when you have a sense that your dog or cat is relying on you to live,” said Smith, himself a dog owner.
While Smith’s life has taken a more balanced, less stressful form after adding a pet to his world, University of Florida College of Veterinary Medicine professor and dog owner Patrick Larkin, Ph.D., says there is an immediate sense of responsibility toward a pet. While cats may be more finicky, both dogs and cats produce positive responses when their owners cuddle with them and give them extra attention. However, dogs are “pack animals,” so they tend to create close bonds with their owners more quickly.
“A similar analogy to owning a pet is having a kid,” said Larkin, who teaches a university course called “The Dog.” “They look up to you, they rely on you to feed them and have social interactions. You teach each other things.”
Oncology nurse Jennifer DeCastro and husband Juan have been married 16 years and “have a dog always by their side.” Today, they own one older black Labrador/Shar Pei rescue, Damon, and a smaller Yorkie, Eva.
Thanks to their dogs, the family is always treated with unconditional love, DeCastro said.
“No matter how bad our day is, how restless our sleep was or how deep in thought we are when we enter the room,” she added.
A Loving Relationship
Once you are in a rhythm with your pet, the benefits both you and your pet gain over time are unparalleled.
In fact, Smith noted, “These relationships between dogs (and) cats and humans is unduplicated in the rest of the animal kingdom. Most mutualisms are really just reciprocal exploitative relationships. But, the relationship between companions and animals is different because humans are capable of complex emotions.”
In the long run, Larkin contends that pets constantly keep their owners busy, engaged and responsible.
DeCastro feels her dogs have become a true part of her family, from being at every holiday and family gathering to helping the family handle the loss of Juan’s parents.
“It’s like Damon, our Lab mix, remembers them and helps us remember and keep close to their memory,” DeCastro said.
Not to mention that along with an important need to exercise, which DeCastro says keeps the family in check, the feeling of protection they get from the dogs is constant.
“Perhaps they are just protecting their territory or their source of food, but it seems like more than that,” Juan said. “It seems like mutual affection, I take care of them, and they take care of me. Again, totally unique.”
“Sometimes we feel too protected from squirrels!” DeCastro joked.
Gainesville residents Sue and Henry Tosi have had a pet throughout most of their four years of marriage. Interior designer Sue grew up with a dog always in the house, while for UF business professor Henry it was part of the new experience when the couple married.
Through their marriage, they each discovered the importance of pets: For Sue, it became her “norm” to have a dog’s companionship at all times, while Henry, who knew he wanted a pet after his first wife died, realized that pets “grow on you.” Today, neither can imagine being without the company of their two Labradoodles.
A Sense of Responsibility
The “rewards” of pet ownership vary by age, but they have a particular impact on children.
The DeCastros’ dogs are always up to play, especially with the couple’s sons Ayrton, 12, and Juan, 8. Of course, the boys also have some pet care chores, which allow them to gain a new sense of responsibility and compassion.
“The dogs are always excited and appreciative. It’s a great start to kicking off (the children’s) responsibilities by getting that instant gratification but also a long-term result,” DeCastro said.
Another difference is based on age. The family’s black Lab has various medical conditions, and the Yorkie is a smaller breed, which gives both boys the chance to be more nurturing.
“(It’s) a change from their football, lacrosse and skateboarding roughness,” DeCastro said.
Larkin, who has children of his own, has observed that the necessary responsibility for owning a pet is bestowed on children in a role similar to what their parents have.
“A lot of skills kids use with caring for a pet are what parents do with their child,” he said.
The Perfect Companion
Lindsay Kreig, director of volunteer services at UF Health Shands Hospital, has seen the medical effects of interactions between pets and people, namely from the Pet Visitation program at Shands. A progressive version of therapy, the program allows pet handlers to take their registered dogs of all breeds and sizes to visit patients in the hospital.
A pet brings an immediate sense of calm that lowers anxiety, which causes lower blood pressure and an increase in serotonin levels, and ultimately helps speed patient recovery.
“Happier patients are generally more able to continue their treatments, and it goes hand in hand with the recovery process,” Kreig said.
She added that she believes the real healing benefits of pet visitation are what maintain its presence at Shands.
“You can talk to almost any handler, and they will have stories of parents saying their child has been in pain,” she said. “The best they’ve felt is when a therapy dog came and took a nap with them.”
As a behavior specialist, Smith details how strong relationships with pets can help combat the buildup of stress from everyday life.
This “biological bond,” according to Larkin, is why we are so affected by our pets’ behaviors, whether we are startled by a dog’s bark or instantly relaxed by petting a docile pet.
“We love our animals, and we have the sense that they love us back,” he said. “Such emotions can release other hormones that combat stress, relax us and help us to feel an overall sense of well-being.”
Realizations of Pet Ownership:
Matthew Smith: “You could be rich, have a wonderful, loving family, a great job and live in the perfect town. But, that doesn’t mean that a companion animal won’t be just as beneficial as someone living under more stressful conditions. To me, this is what makes dogs and cats so amazing — they just make life better, even if your life is already awesome!”
Patrick Larkin: “I feel that if someone wants to have kids down the road, it is important to have a pet potentially first. It is a stepping stone to realize even greater responsibility. My wife and I realized how much responsibility owning a dog is, as you have to make sure the animal is taken care of at all times, which is only exacerbated more when you have a child.”
Jennifer DeCastro: “There are so many benefits, so much laughter and funny silly moments caught on tape or kept in our memories that bring smiles to our faces when we look back on the pictures or talk about those moments. It’s a great feeling, no doubt!”
Sue Tosi: “When my last dog died, Henry said, ‘Well, let’s go get you another dog.’ But that’s not how it works. When you want to get a dog, you have to just fall in love with it.”