They’re not just “child-substitutes.” Pets are companions, stress-relievers, and practice dependents. And they may be just what you need when you’re trying to conceive.
For the six years that my husband and I tried to conceive a baby, nothing was constant. Every day of trying was filled with emotional highs and lows. But the one thing we could always depend on at the end of the day was the unconditional love that our 40-pound, terrier-mix mutt, Aggie, offered. It was as if she knew when I received a negative pregnancy test or was recovering from one of my numerous miscarriages; she would instantly put her head on my lap, giving me that soulful look in her sparkling brown eyes that said, “don’t worry, it will be okay.” She always managed to ease my anxiety with her own brand of doggie psychotherapy.
Now that our son, Jeremy, is 16 months old, Aggie is there to roughhouse with him, kiss him, and offer him the same kind of ingrained nurturing that she bestows on my husband and me. And having a pet definitely helped prepare us for parenthood: After all, we’ve been taking care of another living being for the past eight years.
My experience mirrors those of millions of other pet owners who are trying to get pregnant—whether they’re just starting or have been trying for a while. Although there’s no empirical evidence relating pet ownership (of the nation’s over 60 million dogs or nearly 70 million cats) to ease of conception, having a furry creature beside you has been shown in numerous medical studies to lower blood pressure and provide a calming effect, says Bonnie V. Beaver, D.V.M., president of The American Veterinary Medical Association and professor at Texas A&M University in College Station, Texas. “Petting your dog or cat can give you a relaxing, five-minute vacation from the pressures of life, and that kind of de-stressing can only be helpful when you are trying to conceive,” Beaver says.
Caring for an animal also shifts the focus to someone who needs your care, someone other than yourself; the nurturing helps ease the transition into parenthood by giving you a primer course in responsibility, notes Los Angeles psychotherapist Nancy Irwin, who does couples counseling. “Loving and caring for a pet helps create that feeling of family even before you have a child,” she adds. In addition, owning an animal brings a sense of playfulness into your life—something that you will need when caring for a baby or small child, adds Rachel Greene Baldino, a Shrewsbury, Massachusetts, clinical social worker who also counsels couples.
While sources emphasize that a pet doesn’t take the place of a baby, it certainly can make the road to parenthood a bit smoother. “A pet can help prepare a couple for the arrival of a baby by allowing them to express their maternal and paternal instincts,” says Joseph Isaacs, president and chief executive officer of Resolve, The National Infertility Association. “You also learn about nurturing, teaching obedience, and giving of yourself—like you would with a child.”
Says Andria Arena, 30, of Staten Island, New York, a senior vice president at an investor and public relations firm in Manhattan who is trying to plan a family, “My Shih Tzu, Portia, is a constant reminder of the sweetness one sees in a child and just makes me feel better at the end of the busy day. I think that she will make me a kinder, more patient parent when I do have a child.”