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The Pet Prescription: Is It for You?

Owning a pet can reduce stress and improve many aspects of your health. But not everyone is cut out for pet ownership.

Lessons From the Pound

The two main reasons people take pets to the pound are 1) the owners move, and 2) the pets' behavior is a problem, according to Mo Salman, Professor of Veterinary Epidemiology at the Colorado State University College of Veterinary Medicine. He led a study of why people relinquish pets. "One thing that surprised me about the study was finding the short turnover of dogs and cats relinquished to shelters," he said. "Average time was less than a year. My interpretation is that people just didn't give it thought before getting a pet."


The study also revealed people were more likely to give up a pet if they received it from someone else as opposed to getting it on their own. "I think well-meaning friends and family should recognize the person's ability to accommodate the pet's needs," Salman says. "Some matchings are perfect, but others are dangerous. Perfect matching is giving an elderly person who mainly stays at home a sweet, older cat that's always been a house cat. A risky match would be giving her a puppy. There's a balance. People need to consider both the animal and human needs."

Enjoy Pets Without Responsibility

You can get all the pet companionship you want without the responsibility of ownership. Just ask Jackie Ireland of Omaha, Neb. She and her husband vowed never to own another animal after their beloved cat, Tinker, became seriously ill and was euthanized at age 13. Eventually she found she could indulge her love of felines by cat sitting for neighbors in her townhome complex.


Other options to pet ownership carry varying degrees of responsibility. Many animal shelters need "foster parents" for pets not quite ready for adoption. If you don't want animals in your home, you can volunteer to work at an animal shelter. Tasks may be as unglamorous as cleaning cages or as rewarding as bottle-feeding kittens. Animal shelters also provide educational outreach services that depend on volunteers to take animals to schools or shopping malls. Animal-assisted therapy groups also need help taking animals to visit nursing homes, children's hospital wards, and residential treatment facilities.


Whether a part-time relationship with animals as a volunteer carries the health benefits studies attribute to pet ownership isn't known. But many people, like Ireland, say they derive immense satisfaction from the interaction. "I get the best of all worlds," she says. "I'll never have to face putting another cat to sleep, I don't have full-time responsibility for a pet, but I still have cats in my life."


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