Pets: All in the family

Americans' love of pets is growing; in 2010, the number of pets climbed to around 165 million.

Animals aren't just another possession ... they're kin in every way that counts. Our Cover Story is reported by Jim Axelrod:

Even on a cold and dreary day in early April, when winter's doing its best to hold on, Joan and her two Portuguese water dogs are out walking.

"They keep me moving," she said as they walked through the freezing cold and falling snow. "They're telling each other what a great day it is."

A widow for 11 years, her children grown, Joan found Lola and Gus (short for "gusto") the perfect guard dogs to chase away loneliness whenever it threatens.

"I couldn't stand the empty quiet house, and I said, 'Hhmmmm, a dog!'" Joan remarked.

"I'll bet that story is going to sound so familiar to so many people," Axelrod said. "Oh, I imagine so," she replied.

It should. In 1972 Americans owned about 61 million dogs and cats. By 2010, that number has climbed to around 165 million.

Two pets were enough for Joan to fill her empty nest.

Artist Kathy Ruttenberg needed a few more ...

"Three peacocks, six goats, three pigs, ten chickens, two parakeets," she counted. "I have nine pigeons - fancy pigeons. I have three cats, two dogs. I said ten rabbits, right?"

She lives with 71 pets at her animal-inspired artwork-filled home in upstate New York. She sat with an angora rabbit in her lap.

"I don't know about other people, but for me, a proximity to these animals is very healing," Ruttenberg said. "And it's really feeds me in a way that my relationship with humans hasn't fed me."

She oversees her menagerie with the command of a general. Everything is spotless, and at night her troops climb right into bed with her - cats, dogs, and pig.

The snorting pig is a good sleeper, says Ruttenberg. "You can't imagine. She won't move all night. In fact, she's angry if I move."

Kathy may live on the far end of the spectrum, but in our pet nation - where two-leggeds fill stomachs and four-leggeds fill hearts - animals are more than ever the companion of choice.

"Right now it's a very balanced environment, so I don't know what a male homo sapien would do to my environment!" she laughed.

According to one survey, 62% of U.S. households are now home to at least one pet. That's 73 million homes.

And we spend a lot taking care of them - more than $48 billion last year. [Consider that after the earthquake in Haiti, U.S. citizens donated $1.4 billion.]

James Serpell, a professor of animal welfare at the University of Pennsylvania's vet school, said the U.S. pet population is doubling.

"People are having fewer children, they're more likely to be divorced, they tend to have less substantial friendships," he said. "And what I think is happening is that people are looking to animals to fill those gaps."

According to Serpell, a growing body of evidence suggests love for our pets is as much a matter of head as heart - specifically, a neurochemical called oxytocin.

"We know that when a mother or a father handles their own infant, that they see a big increase in oxytocin levels in their bloodstream," Serpell said. "And we know that this rise in oxytocin is associated with a decline in stress hormones.

"So the animals [are] doing the same thing for us essentially. It's producing this rise in oxytocin level, that's bringing down our stress levels."

It makes perfect sense. The burdens of life are eased by pets; more burdens than ever in our lives - mean more pets than ever.

It also explains the pampering that can sometimes seem like people taking care of people, not animals.

No surprise given that a poll conducted by Sunday Morning revealed 89% of us consider our pets to be part of the family

"They get something from animals, these companion animals, these pets, which is not identical to what we get from other people but is certainly similar," said Serpell.

Joan sounded like a proud mother: "Look at that face; I mean, isn't he gorgeous?" she said.

So keep all this in mind the next time you're ready to roll your eyes at one of those over-the-top pet people:

When asked what her own children think of her "dog kids," Joan replied, "I can give you a couple of examples. I was talking to one of my kids on the phone, and Lola was being naughty, and I said, 'Excuse me a minute,' and I boomed, 'Lola, no!' And my son said to me, 'Oh my God, mom, I feel like I'm nine years old, and you've just reprimanded me!'

"I know, son!" she laughed.

Joan Axelrod ... like most citizens of Pet Nation ... knows the difference between two-legs and four-legs, most of the time.

Jim Axelrod drew the line when Joan said, "You kinda look like Gus." "Come on, which one of us is better looking?" he laughed.

"You're the human better-looking one, and he's the dog better-looking one," Joan replied. "He has more hair," she offered, "like you used to have."

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