January 09, 2020
They say an apple a day keeps the doctor away, but that’s clearly got nothing on a dog. (Plus you can share some of the apple with your furry pal and everybody wins!)
Having a dog makes you healthier and happier — instantly improving an owner’s quality of life, both mentally and physically. Let’s be honest, how many of us would spend way more time on the couch if we didn’t have a fur friend to get us out of the house every once in a while?
Now, no one’s saying you and your pal need to spend your free time running around forest trails or hiking steep mountains. (Not unless you want to, that is.) Some of the health benefits of dogs on their owners may seem obvious, dogs can positively impact their owners’ health in much more subtle ways too.
Owning a dog makes your heart feel good, but that’s not just a figure of speech. Having a dog around has been linked to an overall improvement in heart health through lower cholesterol, lower blood pressure, and fewer heart attacks compared to non-dog owners. This is likely due to the fact that dog owners exercise more with their pets, but dogs also generally decrease stress levels.
There are few things in this world that match the joy you feel when you come home after a long day and see your dog waiting for you with their tail wagging back and forth. This is just one of the many examples of how dogs lower stress levels.
Dr. Greg Fricchione, director of the Harvard-affiliated Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine, credits these overall lower stress levels and other benefits to the deep relationships dogs and their owners establish.
“I suspect, in many cases [of dog ownership], the emotional benefits are experienced quite rapidly,” said Fricchione. “This may be related to the effects of almost instantaneous unconditional acceptance of us on the part of the dog, which leads to the relaxation response which is associated reductions in blood pressure, heart rate, and oxygen consumption.”
It may be surprising to find out that this benefit isn’t only felt by owners, but by our dogs too!
“It is striking and surprising that when a dog owner and his dog share eye contact, oxytocin levels not only rise in the owner but also in the dog,” said Fricchione. “It may be that the health of both the owner and the dog benefit from their relationship.”
One of the biggest benefits that dogs provide their owners is companionship. Anyone can benefit from the friendship of a dog, but that’s especially the case with people who are more likely to spend long periods of time alone, which can lead to bouts of depression, such as the sick and elderly.
“The research that supports the special benefit of therapy dogs for those people isolated in their suffering with PTSD, reflects this evolutionary attachment solution that is available to us in the human-dog relationship,” said Fricchione.
The common myth in the pet industry used to be that dogs would give people allergies and make their asthma act up. Well, in a surprising revelation, more recent studies have found that this is the opposite of the truth and that having dogs in a home can decrease the chances that a child develops asthma or allergies by up to as much as 33%.
Perhaps the most measurable health benefit to dog ownership is weight loss. In the early 2000s, a team of researchers at the Wellness Institute at Northwestern Memorial Hospital conducted a study where they found that when owners and dogs are both overweight, they can both experience some major weight loss by exercising together. This can also improve their connection over time because everyone needs a good workout buddy!
With a growing senior population, it’s important that we find ways to help them live their fullest lives. Research shows that one way to help with this might be through dog ownership.
“In addition, dog ownership for seniors may provide stimulation for cognitive enhancement and executive functioning,” said Fricchione. “It may also provide the opportunity for much-needed exercise and the sociability that comes with meeting other dog owners. Many seniors will report that having their dog in their room at night promotes easier sleep.”
This should be taken with a grain of salt, though, as dogs do come with a fair share of responsibility.
“All this comes with the caveat that certain levels of health and resilience are necessary for the benefit vs. cost ratio to favor dog ownership in this demographic,” Fricchione continues. “This is because dog ownership is accompanied by the stress and effort of having responsibility for the life and wellness of another sentient being.” But, as any dog owner knows, it’s worth it.