“Dogs are not our whole life, but they make our lives whole.” ― Roger Caras

“When I am feeling low all I have to do is watch my cats and my courage returns” ― Charles Bukowski

“I know I know! We ask a lot for the fur babies, but it is just what God is sending our way lately.”

That was the first line in a social media post from a friend of mine who rescues dogs. I love dogs — and cats, fish, birds, and a few other creatures, but I have some friends who go above and beyond to save animals. I’ve participated in this on a very small scale by helping drive a dog from a pickup to a drop-off point.

It’s amazing to see how rescues work to find homes clear across the country, and volunteers get on board to drive small segments. Many hands make light work, I believe the quote goes. Like Caras and Bukowski, I have seen how pets have made my life more whole and my courage more — well any courage is a win.

At our house, the one furry creature is named Mac. He was a rescue dog. My friend gifted us with him 11 years ago, or so, and he has been one of the family ever since. My husband took him to obedience school, where they received a diploma for their hard work.

If my anxiety kicks in, I scoop Mac up and hold him close to me, and almost like magic, the anxiety fades away. And that is how having a dog has worked for me my entire life. Blackie, King, Skipper, Risky, Sandy, and now sweet ol’ Mac.

What about you? Have you ever had pets, and do you have any now? I’ve owned dogs, cats, a bird, and as a mother of boys, I’ve been the silent partner (and litter cleaner) in owning gerbils, toads, fish and iguanas. The two questions that seem to stick with me are 1) Why do we have pets? and 2) Do we care more about animals than we do people? Both of those are fair questions, I believe. Both have taken me down the research rabbit hole.

It seems humans have had pets in our families for a very long time. In fact, thousands of years ago, dogs and cats were buried with owners, though researchers aren’t quite sure the meaning of that. It’s only been in the past several hundred years that pets have become the family members we have today. And there are many questions by researchers surrounding our behavior toward animals.

Honestly, after reading research from about 10 writers, I’ve decided that much of having a pet is a desire for control — not what you were wanting to hear, I’m guessing. But why else do we think we should breed designer dogs, dock tails, and dress our pets in holiday attire?

That said, Mac has had some cute shirts, and my favorite photo of him has him wearing a bowtie. We tend to humanize dogs, sometimes doing the same with cats. Cats, of course, are much less concerned with bringing the owner pleasure than dogs, and we seem to try to bring them all pleasure. They don’t complain the way humans do, after all.

People who want to own wild animals (Tiger King, for example) often claim they want to protect the animals to be sure breeding continues, or they want to learn more about the breed of animal, and in some cases, they say they believe they can domesticate the wild animals. Interesting to note that dogs took around 30,000 years to domesticate and cats around 5,000 years.

It would seem unlikely that anyone would be able to accomplish domestication of other wild animals in short order. But we humans like owning things, and that, along with our love of companionship, seems at least in part to be the answer to the first question, “Why do we have pets?”

This leads to the second question of, “Do we care more about animals than we do people?” Of course, we don’t, you might be quick to reply, but research reveals a part of us that might surprise you.

Judging from Hal Herzog’s research that “40 percent of married female dog owners reported they received more emotional support from their pet than from their husband or their kids,” it’s easy to see the possibility that we are prepared to give back what we feel we receive. And the truth is pretty mixed, but based on several reports, we humans will choose to save a baby and a puppy and an adult dog before we will save a human. I’m just going to sit with that for a second.

Pets love us unconditionally. Be it fish who are soothing to watch, a cat who is content to purr as we pet, or more so when we feed, it, a bird who rewards us with colorful words we can teach it to say, or a dog — that companion that will fetch, roll over, and cuddle in a storm, we receive something we don’t from humans.

Pets don’t have to get homework completed, don’t require an argument to get them to go to bed (most of the time), and are easily bribed with a pat on the head or a tasty treat. Humans require so much more. I wouldn’t trade any of my humans for our very best dog, but not everyone feels that way. In a couple of the studies, 30-40% of the people surveyed said they would choose their dog over a stranger, 15% would choose any dog over a stranger, and still a small percentage would choose their dog over someone close to them. (This was an off-shoot of The Trolley Problem)

What does all of this mean? We humans love having someone to love. We are made for relationships, and we are almost always going to do what we can for the pet, who we know truly needs us. Whether it’s the dog who makes you whole, the cat who gives you courage, or the fish who takes you to a calmer place as you watch him move through the water, pets are here to stay. While I still wish we cared as much for humans as we often do for pets, I’ll settle now for knowing we care.

If you really want to make a difference, you might check into helping one of the pet rescues by fostering, financing, transporting, or adopting. My two favorites are ASAP Animal Support & Placement Rescue and Proverbs 12:10 Animal Rescue. Feel free to let me know your adoption stories!

Susan Black Steen is a writer and photographer, a native Tennessean and a graduate of Austin Peay State University. With a firm belief that words matter, she writes and speaks to bring joy, comfort and understanding into each life. Always, she writes from her heart in hopes of speaking to the hearts of others. She can be reached at (stories@susanbsteen.com).

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