Why We Splurge on Our Pets

Sixty percent of American pet owners have bought Fido or Fluffy a holiday gift, and 36 percent have bought a birthday present, according to a 2011 Harris Poll. In fact, pets are one segment of the U.S. population that has flourished in the current economy. Spending on pets is expected to top $52 billion in 2012, up from $29.5 billion only a decade ago.

A lot of that money is going for more than plain old kibble, collars, and kennels. Many pets today are treated to gourmet foods, designer duds, and ritzy spas. But why are our four-legged friends living large while the rest of us tighten our belts? A look at the psychological research suggests some explanations.

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Stress Relief

Pets are excellent stress busters—and the tougher the day, the more you need that relaxation boost. A study from Virginia Commonwealth University showed just how powerfully relaxing a pet can be. The study took place at a North Carolina company with about 550 employees. On a given day, about 20 to 30 of the employees’ dogs were on site.

For a week, study participants rated how stressed they felt at different points in the day. In employees who left their dogs at home and those who didn’t own pets, stress increased as the workday wore on. In contrast, stress actually declined over the course of the day in employees who brought their dogs to work. But when these same employees left their pooches at home, their stress levels rose through the day just like everyone else’s.

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Morale Boost

Pets offer unconditional love, loyalty, and acceptance. They don’t care if you flub a job interview or get turned down for a loan. They’re still utterly thrilled to see you when you walk in the door—even if you only stepped out for a minute to grab the mail.

This gratifying reaction may be particularly welcome when you’re going through a rough patch. In a study from Miami University, college students were first asked to write about a time when they felt excluded. Then they were asked to do one of three things: write about a favorite pet, write about a favorite friend, or draw a map of the campus. Writing about a pet was just as effective as writing about a human pal for easing the sting of rejection.

Social Support

Strong social support helps you bounce back from adversity and stress. A cat or dog expands your close social network. And the relationship with man’s (or woman’s) best friend is often marred by less conflict than relationships of the two-legged kind.

But do pets really count as loved ones? Absolutely. In the 2011 Harris Poll, over 90% of pet owners said they considered their dog or cat part of the family. Yet, unlike human relatives, pets never bicker, belittle, or nag. Maybe that’s why nearly one-third of pet owners in another survey said they would rather talk with their cat after a long day than with their best friend, kids, or parents. Pets, unlike people, are almost always great listeners.

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