Yes, they give you kisses when you walk through the door and offer a nonjudgmental eye when you reach for that Krispy Kreme. But caring for and loving those furry little creatures also offer a surprising range of health benefits — both physical and psychological. Among the ways having a dog can improve your life…
It keeps you in shape. Fido is right up there with Fitbit when it comes to helping us stay active. A 2017 study published in the journal BMC Public Health found that dog owners on average walked 22 minutes more per day compared to those that didn't own a pup. What's more, research published in The Gerontologist found that dog walkers had a lower body mass index, more mobility at home, fewer doctor visits and were more active in general.
It strengthens your ticker. Dogs don't just have a hold on our heart, they can also keep it healthy by getting you on the move. Studies have shown that dog owners have a lower risk of high blood pressure, and a 2013 report issued by the American Heart Association concluded that owning a dog is most likely linked to a decreased risk of cardiovascular disease. What's more, those who own a dog are more likely to survive a heart attack.
Eases stress and depression
Research shows that interaction with animals, particularly dogs, increases oxytocin levels in humans to reduce stress and anxiety. In fact, simply looking at or petting a canine can cause the hormone to be released and soothe your psyche. “They've done studies, looking at people suffering with clinical depression, and those who have a pet tend to recover faster and need less pharmaceutical intervention,” says Natalie Marks, medical director and veterinarian at Blum Animal Hospital, in Chicago. A 2015 study, published in the Journal of Community and Supportive Oncology, showed a lift in “emotional well-being and quality of life” for adults undergoing cancer treatment after visits from a therapy dog, while a 2019 study from the Indiana University School of Medicine found that 15 minutes of exposure to a therapy dog significantly lowered anxiety and depression in those being treated in emergency rooms.
Helps you stay connected
Dogs pull us out of the house, helping us meet new people and widen our social network. A recent British poll of 2,000 dog owners found that almost half made new friends while taking their pooch for a stroll. “There's a social lubricant effect in which a dog provides a medium for conversation,” says Rebecca Johnson, director of the Research Center for Human-Animal Interaction at the University of Missouri College of Veterinary Medicine. “If you have grandchildren, it provides something to talk about. It can foster conversation among peers, as well. People who have dogs pull out their phones and share photos of their dog, just as we share photos of our children and grandchildren.”
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Gives your life meaning and purpose
As you age, the things that previously occupied your time fall away. Caring for an animal can help make you feel needed and wanted. They also add structure to your day. “You have to get up in the morning to feed the dog, right?” Marks says. “That dog needs you.” The interaction and companionship that a dog provides can also ward off feelings of isolation and loneliness, which, in turn, can lead to depression.
Teaches you to live in the moment
A simple walk with your dog can change your world by helping you become more mindful and appreciate the joy of the present. “You experience the world through your dog's eyes,” says Johnson. “When you're on a walk, you're noticing birds, squirrels and the things around you. As we see dogs taking in information from their environment, it gives us a whole different perspective on the outdoors that we wouldn't have if we were just strolling along by ourselves, looking at our phone, just trying to get exercise."
Eases your pain
Research has shown that just looking at a dog produces a release of endorphins, the body's natural pain killers. In a 2012 University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine study, 34 percent of patients with fibromyalgia experienced pain relief, along with a better mood and less fatigue, after a 10- to 15-minute visit with a therapy dog, compared to 4 percent of patients who sat in a waiting room. In another study, this one by researchers at Loyola University Chicago Marcella Niehoff School of Nursing, people who had undergone joint replacement surgery needed 28 percent less oral pain medication after daily visits from a therapy dog than those with no contact.
Note that there is one doggy downer. A Penn Medicine study has shown that spills — and the fractures that come with them — while dog walking have more than doubled between 2004 and 2017 in patients 65 and older. Falls jumped from 1,671 cases in 2004 to 4,396 in 2017, a 163 percent increase. Experts aren't sure what's behind those lofty numbers, but some surmise that older people today are more likely to engage in physical activity, and more of them own pets.
Training your dog to walk on a leash and considering a smaller or less active breed of pup can go a long way toward preventing stumbles. And keep in mind, says Johnson, “The health benefits of owning a dog definitely outweigh the risks.”