Posted on January 3, 2016
Eight Health Benefits Provided by Dogs
Sharing our homes and hearts with dogs enriches our lives with so much enjoyment and love. Frankly, I can’t imagine my life without them. But, did you know that interaction with our dogs also provides us with some well-documented health benefits?
If one of your New Year’s resolutions is better health, some canine companionship may be just the ticket! Here are some of the ways dogs can impact our wellbeing.
- Increased physical activity in adults and the elderly
The nudge from the nose of a restless dog provides great incentive for playtime and getting outside for a walk, regardless of the weather. According to a study by researchers at the University of Victoria (where it gets really cold!) people with dogs were more likely to participate in physical activity. They walked an average of 300 minutes per week, compared to those without dogs, who walked an average of 168 minutes per week.
University of Missouri research documented that elderly people with dogs were more consistent about regular exercise and showed greater improvement in fitness than those who walked with a human companion. Additionally, those partnered with dogs demonstrated increased walking confidence and improved balance.
- Increased physical activity in children
Dogs have a way of dragging little people away from their computer screens and smart phones. According to a study in the American Journal of Public Health, children living with dogs spent more time engaged in physical activity than children without dogs. Additionally, those with dogs tended to engage more vigorous activities.
- Stress busters
Dogs are fabulous role models for us, particularly when it comes to living in the moment. They’re not stewing about what happened yesterday or worrying about what may happen tomorrow. They are busy enjoying life in the here and now, and experiencing less stress than their faithful human companions.
Forty-eight stockbrokers with high blood pressure were studied to determine the effects of pet companionship on mental stress. The group was divided into those receiving blood pressure medication alone and those receiving medication along with an adopted a dog or cat. While both groups experienced a general decrease in blood pressure, those with pets experienced lower blood pressure measurements in response to their work-related stress.
In another study, work place stress levels were compared between employees who brought their dogs to work with them (dog group) and those who did not (nondog group). The researchers found that, throughout the workday, stress levels declined for those in the dog group and increased for workers within the nondog group. Additionally, stress levels for workers within the dog group increased on days when their dogs were absent, mirroring the pattern of workers in the nondog group.
The results of these studies certainly make sense. As with any pleasurable activity, enjoying the company of a dog can elevate levels of serotonin and dopamine, brain chemicals that reduce stress, uplift mood, and provide a sense of well being.
- Emotional development in children
Children develop psychologically by experiencing the love, attachment, comfort, and responsibility associated with pet companionship. A Kansas State University study determined that children who were bonded with a household pet expressed a higher level of empathy compared to those without a close bond with an animal. This makes sense in that empathy requires the ability to read nonverbal cues such as body language and facial expressions. The human-animal bond naturally hones these skills.
- Allergies and eczema in children
We’ve been conditioned to believe that dogs are a common cause of allergies in children. In fact, kids who are exposed to dogs from a very young age have significantly less risk for developing allergies. A study published in the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology concluded that exposure to dogs during infancy can influence the child’s immune system development and lessen the likelihood of allergies in at-risk children (those with allergic parents). Newborns who had a dog in the home were much less likely to have allergic skin disease and asthma by their third birthday compared to children from dog-free households.
A University of Cincinnati study of 636 children predisposed to dog allergies (allergic parents) were less likely to develop eczema by four years of age if there was a dog in the home during their first year of life. Children predisposed to allergies who did not live with a dog were four times more likely to develop eczema. Interestingly, the opposite was true for children with cat exposure before their first birthday. Cat-exposed kids were 13 times more likely to develop eczema by age four.
- Happiness and wellbeing
What we humans all have in common is the desire for emotional connection with other living beings. In fact this feeling of connection is a key component of happiness and healthy aging. Dogs certainly provide opportunity for connectivity, not only with the animal, but with other people as well. Spend some time at a busy dog park and you will discover a whole world of camaraderie and socialization. In fact, there is often more human than canine interaction going on!
A study published in the British Journal of Psychology demonstrated that being accompanied by a dog during normal daily activities outside of the home dramatically increased (by 21 times) the frequency of social interactions, particularly with strangers. The study concluded that the company of a dog is truly a social catalyst.
A series of studies summarized in a paper titled, “Friends with Benefits: on the Positive Consequences of Pet Ownership” investigated whether or not animals can fulfill social support needs. The studies yielded several conclusions. People with pets experienced:
- Greater self esteem
- Increased exercise
- Greater conscientiousness
- Increased wellbeing
- Less negativity caused by social rejection
Additionally, the research showed that the support provided by pets complemented rather than competed with support from human sources.
- Heart health
A National Institute of Health study evaluated 421 men who suffered heart attacks. One year following the heart attacks, individuals who lived with dogs were more likely to be alive compared to those without dogs. This held true regardless of the severity of the heart attack.
Another study evaluated 240 married couples, some with pets and some without. Those in the pet group were documented to have lower heart rates and blood pressure, both at rest or when undergoing stress tests. Additionally, they experienced milder responses and quicker recoveries from stress when they were with their pets, more so than when they were with a spouse or friend.
Lastly, a study of over 5,000 people in Australia showed that those with pets had lower blood pressure and triglyceride and cholesterol levels, a result that could not be explained by other factors such as body weight, cigarette smoking, or socio-economic status.
- Improved quality of life for the elderly
The responsibility of caring for a pet often gives an aged individual a good reason to get out of bed in the morning. Feeding and walking schedules provide structure to their day, and the relationship with an animal can offer a meaningful emotional connection to another living being. Additionally, as they care for their pet, seniors are reminded to take care of themselves as well.
Other documented pet-related benefits for senior citizens include the following:
- Elderly people who walked their dogs had more conversations focused on the present rather than the past compared to their peers who walked without dogs.
- Recently widowed women with pets experienced significantly fewer physical and psychological symptoms of disease and reported less use of medication than those women without pets.
- Bereaved elderly people with few social connections were less prone to depression if they had a strong attachment with an animal.
- Alzheimer’s patients living with pets demonstrated fewer mood disorders and episodes of aggression or anxiety compared to those without the company of an animal.
- Elderly people with dogs had fewer doctor visits per year than seniors without dogs.
How has life with a dog enhanced your health and sense of wellbeing?
Wishing you and your four-legged family members a very happy new year,
Nancy Kay, DVM
Diplomate, American College of Veterinary Internal Medicine
Author of Speaking for Spot: Be the Advocate Your Dog Needs to Live a Happy, Healthy, Longer Life
Author of Your Dog’s Best Health: A Dozen Reasonable Things to Expect From Your Vet
Recipient, Leo K. Bustad Companion Animal Veterinarian of the Year Award
Recipient, American Animal Hospital Association Animal Welfare and Humane Ethics Award
Recipient, Dog Writers Association of America Award for Best Blog
Recipient, Eukanuba Canine Health Award
Recipient, AKC Club Publication Excellence Award
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Please visit http://www.speakingforspot.com to read excerpts from Speaking for Spot and Your Dog’s Best Health. There you will also find “Advocacy Aids”- helpful health forms you can download and use for your own dog, and a collection of published articles on advocating for your pet’s health. Speaking for Spot and Your Dog’s Best Health are available at www.speakingforspot.com, Amazon.com, local bookstores, and your favorite online book seller.