The healthiest people understand the benefits of having a health care team. You work with your primary care physician and pharmacist, for instance, to ensure you are getting the appropriate screenings and taking your medications properly. Depending on your situation, your PCP might refer you to a specialist physician, a physical therapist, or a mental health counselor. For many, their dog is considered a crucial member of their health care team.
But, wait. A dog. Really? Really. Researchers who study the relationship between dog ownership and good health make an impressive case for owning a dog. Dogs improve several health-related aspects of peoples’ lives and decrease risk factors for one of the nation’s most prevalent and deadly diseases: heart disease.
PHYSICAL ACTIVITY: We’ve heard it a million times; increased physical activity directly relates to decreased risk of a number of diseases, from diabetes to breast and colon cancer. Therefore, it makes sense that anything motivating you to exercise would be good for your health. A dog, leash in mouth, tail wagging by the door, makes a convincing argument for more exercise.
One study published in Clinical Nursing Research and cited on petpartners.org, a non-profit that promotes the relationship to animals and health, found a walking program matching sedentary adults with dogs resulted in an increase in walking over 52 weeks. Participants’ motivation was clear in their comments. They said, “the dogs need us to walk them.”
Another study, from the National Institutes of Health, reviewed the behaviors of more than 2,500 older adults for three years. Those who regularly walked their dog walked faster and for a longer time than those who do not; older adults with a slower walking speed are at a greater risk for falling. Results from the study revealed they also had greater mobility inside their homes than those who did not walk dogs.
SOCIALIZATION: Another benefit to dog ownership is increased socialization. We know that people who have more social relationships are more likely to live longer and less likely to show mental and physical declines as they age. Dogs work to increase socialization in two key ways.
First of all, they are excellent companions in and of themselves. Many dog owners speak to the deeply affectionate bonds they have with their dogs. “They are like my kids,” some say. They provide devotion, acceptance, and a sense of purpose for many of their owners’ lives. Secondly, dogs may help people increase human relationships, too. Several studies cited by the NIH have shown that walking with a dog leads to more conversations and helps people stay socially connected.
What’s more, dogs can be especially important to those who have difficulty interacting with other humans. According to HABRI, the Human Animal Bond Research Initiative Foundation, symptoms of those with post-traumatic stress disorder and depression are greatly improved by interactions with dogs. HABRI.org also cited a 2014 study in which researchers found improved social behaviors—including smiles, laughs and verbalization; improved attitude; and decreased depression and agitation—among Alzheimer’s patients who have access to a therapy dog.
STRESS RELIEF: Those skeptical about the relationship between dog ownership and better health suggest that it’s possible that healthier people are more likely to own a dog than people in frail health. Experts generally agree this could be true. There are few randomized controlled studies providing credible evidence.
Among the best studies is one cited by the New York Times, which takes the factor of choosing whether to get a dog out of the equation. It relates to stress and pets in general. Forty-eight stockbrokers with hypertension were put on medication that lowered their blood pressure. Then, researchers divided them into groups, and members of one group were directed to adopt a dog or cat. Six months later, researchers found that the stockbrokers who had adopted pets were markedly calmer in the face of stressful events when around their new companions than the stockbrokers without pets.
REDUCED RISK: Together, improvements in physical activity, socialization, and stress levels add up to decreased risk for illness, especially heart disease and cancer. In May 2013, a panel of experts convened by the American Heart Association published a statement linking pet ownership to increased cardiovascular benefit. Similarly, a Baylor College of Medicine researcher studying the relationship concluded, “There are plausible psychological, sociological and physiological reasons to believe that pet ownership might actually have a causal role in decreasing cardiovascular risk.”
Many health experts fall short of recommending patients get a dog for the health benefits alone. Note, however, that many of the studies found little to no benefit in owning a pet alone; you need to exercise with your pet to get the full benefit of physical activity and spend time with your pet to get the benefit of stress reduction. In conclusion, if you have a dog, be sure to get out there for walking and play activities. Make sure to do plenty of research if you are considering owning a dog and be sure you have the time, motivation, and financial resources to care for a dog. The health benefits will be an added bonus.
Michael Fredette is a physical therapist at Southwestern Vermont Medical Center in Bennington.