Which Pet Will Make You Happiest?
A pandemic puppy can increase your well-being—if you choose one for the right reasons.By Arthur C. Brooks
AUGUST 5, 2021
“How to Build a Life” is a weekly column by Arthur Brooks, tackling questions of meaning and happiness.
Despite early-pandemic predictions of a deep, prolonged recession, much of the American and world economies are on fire. Housing in particular is booming; house prices increased more than 19 percent from May 2020 to May 2021. Used cars have surged in price by more than 21 percent over the past year, and air travel has roared back so strongly that the nation is facing a shortage of pilots. But all of that pales in comparison with the puppy bubble.
According to PuppySpot (a web-based dog broker), the price of purebred puppies rose by 36 percent in 2020. About 12.6 million U.S. households got a new pet last year, after the pandemic was declared in March, according to the American Pet Products Association. In addition to purchases and adoptions, dognappings have increased by “epidemic” proportions, according to British police: In London, for example, they were up 250 percent in 2020.
The explosion might be expected, given the loneliness of lockdowns and quarantines. And if you’re working from home, taking your dog (or cat, or ferret) to work is a nonissue. But pandemic or not, if you’re considering adopting a pet, it’s important to think about how doing so will affect your well-being—and your new friend’s. Depending on your choice of species, you might get a decade or more of companionship, but also of early-morning walks and expensive vet bills. Fortunately, research provides a guide about how to decide which pet—if any—is best for you.
A wide body of evidence links personal well-being to pet ownership, though few papers have found that the latter causes the former. One typical study on the matter, from 2011, found that pet owners were less lonely than nonowners, had higher self-esteem, were less fearful, and were in better physical shape.
It is possible that pets raise well-being; it is also possible that people who are naturally not lonely and have high self-esteem—or just those with more socioeconomic capital—tend to get pets. In 2001, one team of researchers attempted to investigate the causal direction through a clinical trial that randomly assigned a pet to some hypertensive stockbrokers and not others. The researchers found that after six months with the animal, when placed under stressful circumstances, the group with pets had lower increases in blood pressure than the no-pet group.
Regardless of whether pets cause happiness, plenty of pet owners find that they tend to feel happier and healthier from playing with, talking to, and walking their pets. One explanation for this pattern is related to oxytocin, the brain’s “love molecule,” which has a unique ability to bond people to one another. It causes intense pleasure, and floods our brains when we touch one another or make eye contact. Blood oxytocin levels are especially high in new parents when they’re holding their babies. But it is not limited to human contact; research published in 2016 in the journal Frontiers in Neuroscience shows that when dogs and their owners interact, both secrete oxytocin.
Even on a neurochemical level, relationships with different sorts of animals have different effects on happiness. Paul Zak, an economist at Claremont Graduate University in California, has found in his research that dogs get a 57.2 percent oxytocin boost when they interact with their owners. Cats get a 12 percent boost. In other words, your dog truly adores you. Your cat accepts your presence. For now.
The feeling appears to be mutual. One 2016 study on 263 American adults found that, although pet owners in general were more satisfied with their life than nonowners, dog owners scored higher than cat owners on all aspects of well-being. In a 2012 study, researchers found that dog owners were more attached to their pets. Further, among owners of both a cat and a dog, 85 percent were more attached to the dog. Perhaps blaming the victim, the authors attributed this to “behavioral characteristics of cats.”
But of course, attachment also depends on the behavioral characteristics of owners. In 2015, Scientific American conducted a survey on different kinds of pets and their owners. It found, among other things, that snake owners were the likeliest to consider their pet “part of the family.” To my knowledge, no studies to date have attempted to measure a snake’s blood oxytocin levels while it gazes lovingly at its master.
Taken together, this research provides three rules to enhance the happiness of those looking to add a nonhuman to the household.
1. Get a pet that matches your personality.
Dog owners might be happiest on average, but as the drug ads always emphasize, your results may vary. The Scientific American survey above found that owner personalities differ a great deal depending on the type of pet. For example, are you a mellow type? Fish owners consider themselves calm and emotionally stable. Highly educated? Hamster owners are the most likely to hold an advanced degree.
A group of Ph.D. psychologists (hamster lovers, perhaps) published a deeper look into pets and personality in the academic journal Anthrozoös in 2010. Using the “Big Five” personality types, they found that dog people are higher in extroversion, agreeableness, and conscientiousness than cat people. Cat people are higher in neuroticism and openness.
You might be tempted to note that dog owners are, well, kind of like dogs, and that cat owners are like cats. Knowing the types of matches that work well on average can help you decide on a new friend. But if you want to try to change your personality, you might decide to cross the cat-dog divide. For example, if you feel you should work on your openness, you might want to step outside your pet comfort zone and get a cat.
2. Consider your motive.
Pet owners don’t always choose their particular companions for the most thoughtful reasons. The most common rationale for choosing one dog over another is its appearance; for a cat, it is how it behaves with people. Breed popularity is also important: Different kinds of dogs tend to follow a boom-bust cycle (kind of like baby names) roughly every 14 years. Take the adorable labradoodle, which all my neighbors seem to own, but which I had never heard of a decade and a half ago. In 2019, the breed’s inventor called it his life’s regret and a “Frankenstein monster,” citing unethical breeding practices resulting from the dog’s popularity. Harsh.
Sometimes people (consciously or unconsciously) choose a good-looking or trendy pet so the animal can serve as a status marker or brand, a phenomenon that scholars have called the “dark side of pet ownership,” because these are “non-loving,” self-promoting motives. Given the research above, this is probably a worse strategy for happiness than picking a pet for love and companionship.
3. Think ahead.
A pandemic pet might be a terrific addition to your household while you are still working from home and need extra companionship. But as my colleague Sarah Zhang has written, your transition back to the office—or even just to days and nights spent away from home—might pose a real hardship to your pet. Many dogs raised with constant human contact suffer a great deal if they are suddenly separated from their owners, and exhibit difficult behavioral problems as a result, such as destroying furniture or barking all day. If you’re worried about a post-pandemic transition, you don’t necessarily have to pass on a pet altogether, but consider choosing one with fewer attachment issues. Your dog might be heartbroken; your cat will probably be fine as long as you aren’t late for his dinnertime. With your iguana, it might be hard to say.
Other issues to plan for might include getting less sleep, food and medical expenses, and what to do when you go out of town in the years to come. This last issue can be a deal breaker. I am crazy about dogs, but haven’t replaced my old buddy Chucho, who died two years ago, because of plans to substantially increase my international travel.
Pets are unusually popular right now, but the bond between domesticated animals and their humans precedes recorded civilization. In the case of dogs, we have even evolved together. Domesticated canines split off from gray wolves about 32,000 years ago, and since then, dogs and humans have developed many characteristics in parallel, including our digestion and metabolism and our neurochemistry (which might be why dogs respond to human antidepressants). Dogs have even evolved a special eyebrow muscle that gives them “puppy-dog eyes,” which they utilize to devastating effect when interacting with humans.
So your pandemic brain isn’t totally impairing your judgment. A pet really can give you meaningful company and increase the love and happiness in your life. Just make sure you pick the right one for your personality, and that you’re in it for the long haul.
Arthur C. Brooks is a contributing writer at The Atlantic, the William Henry Bloomberg Professor of the Practice of Public Leadership at the Harvard Kennedy School, and a professor of management practice at the Harvard Business School. He’s the host of the podcast series How to Build a Happy Life and the author of From Strength to Strength: Finding Success, Happiness, and Deep Purpose in the Second Half of Life.