It's funny how dogs and cats know the inside of folks better than other folks do, isn't it?
-Eleanor H. Porter, Pollyanna
From "Unconditional Love: Healing from Pets" by Jill Neimark, Spirituality & Health Magazine (July/August 2005):
A survey by the American Animal Hospital Association found that three-quarters of pet owners say affection is their pet's most endearing quality. Now a review of the research from Stanford University shows that the love goes both ways and suggests that our own altruistic behavior makes caring for pets so beneficial.
"The attachment we feel to our pets is similar to the unconditional love a parent feels for a child," says Marivic Dizon, a postdoctoral candidate at Stanford University. "Acts of kindness and compassion directed at animals are authentically altruistic. There are few social benefits to such actions beyond the possible reciprocation of love from the animal." Dr. Dizon explains that altruism is linked to improved mental and physical well-being, and the care and nurturing we give animals offers similar benefits. Whether you're rescuing an injured bird or stroking your dog's belly, you will likely be boosting your own health and well-being.
Dizon reports that adults and children who feel empathy towards their pets manifest stronger feelings of empathy toward other people. In Project Pooch, incarcerated youth who learned to care for dogs that had been abandoned also learned greater honesty, empathy, nurturing, social growth, respect for authority, and leadership. A study of women in prisons who trained dogs to help the handicapped found that the women's self-esteem increased significantly.
One long-term study on pet ownership found that adopting a pet is associated with almost instantly improved physical and emotional well-being. This may be in part because caring for a pet connects us more strongly to society.