Many animal-lovers think a cat or dog can help you live a longer, happier, healthier life. But does the science back them up?
My childhood dog was called Biff. Biff was a handful. He was a loud, cocky shetland sheepdog who oozed bravado and bravery. Yet, underneath it all, he struggled with the dog version of impostor syndrome. Biff was a bag of masked insecurity. He was like the kid in school who says he has seen all the scary movies, but refuses to go to any sleepovers where scary movies are played; the kid who has “a girlfriend at another school”. It was that fragile side I especially loved about Biff during my teenage years. We shared an insecurity that neither of us had the cognitive skills to put into words. This was a friendship – one that lasted as he grew older, grumpier and more infirm.
He was an exceptionally licky dog, and loved nothing more than slurping his tongue over our jeans, shoes, socks and coats. Officially, this behaviour was something we attempted to quash – but, every few nights, I would tiptoe into the kitchen and allow him to lick my naked hands and wrists to his heart’s content. For me, the sensation was tickly and calming, and never once disgusting, even though those around me told me it was not a good idea, mainly because it was highly likely that, on any given day, Biff had stuck his snout into some poor fox’s rotting cadaver. I didn’t care. I washed my hands like a surgeon afterwards, obviously. But it was what Biff wanted.
I haven’t had a dog since Biff (I’m nearly 40), and my family and I are deciding whether it’s time to get our own dog. This feels like a very big decision. Part of the reason we want a dog is that we want to walk more. We want to be healthier. We want to be happier. But questions flutter anxiously in the pit of my stomach. Will having a pet really make us happier? Will we be healthier? Does having a pet always make us better people?