If you’re a dog parent, you’ll already know that having a dog in your life is good for you, but you’ll be glad to hear that lots of studies confirm it. There are few things as heart-warming as coming home to your pooch greeting you. Whatever cr@ppy mood you drag home from work is soon eased after playing with your pup for a while. Better emotional wellbeing isn’t the only benefit to having a dog in your life though. Read on to see how owning a dog is good for you, emotionally and physically.
Physical health benefits of owning a dog
Heart health and lower blood pressure
There have been several studies into the effects of dog ownership and heart health. They coincide in finding that having a dog is associated with a lower risk of cardiovascular disease, and that people with pets had significantly lower heart rate and blood pressure levels (source).
One of the studies also found that owning a dog meant you are less likely to die early from any other cause (no, sadly it doesn’t mean getting a dog will make you immortal!)
Physical inactivity is a major threat to our health. Even gentle walking is so good for us, and with increasingly sedentary lifestyles, walking the dog can mean the difference between some exercise, and no exercise. We suffer fewer health problems when we live active lives.
Not only that, but lots of research shows that getting out in nature is good for our health, so when you walk the dog, you get double benefits! Read more about that in this article about the physical and psychological benefits of spending time in nature.
What about play? Time spent playing with our dogs is good for us not only physically, but mentally too. Many adults have ‘grown out of’ being playful, but in fact playfulness doesn’t mean being childish. Playfulness can be relaxing and fun, even as adults. Having a dog makes it super easy to inject some playfulness into daily life. Have a look at these games that you can play with your dog: they’ll be fun for you and mentally stimulating for your pooch.
Greater resistance to disease and fewer allergies
Several studies have shown that children in pet households are less likely to develop allergies. Having a dog in the home can reduce children’s risk of developing respiratory and ear infections, and gastroenteritis. A 2011 study concluded that toddlers growing up with a cat or dog in the home are less likely to be allergic to them later in life.
Disease and illness detection
These days we’re quite used to seeing dogs at work in airports, searching for drugs and bombs. Incredibly, there have been several cases of dogs identifying dangers with their owner’s health, from predicting the onset of epileptic fits to sniffing out cancer and detecting diabetes (source).
There are now trained diabetic alert dogs in service with humans, and cancer detection dogs working with blood samples in lab environments.
Emotional and Psychological benefits of owning a dog
Loneliness and sociability
For those of us who live on our own, having a mutt in the house is fabulous. I never feel lonely in the company of my dogs. And when we go out for walks, their presence always inspires human conversations with people we come across on the walk that I wouldn’t otherwise have, if it weren’t for the dogs.
Of course, dog walking is good not only for us, but for our pooches too. Socialising with other dogs can be an important aspect of our mutts’ lives, and for some dogs, their daily walks are essential for mental and physical stimulation. This is especially the case for a dog that is often at home alone.
If, like me, you regularly find yourself looking into your fur-baby’s eyes and cooing over it, science now explains why that makes us so happy. Oxytocin, often called the “love hormone”, makes you feel good. When a parent looks into the eyes of his or her newborn baby, a chemical process occurs and oxytocin is released by the brain. This is a fundamental process for bonding between parent and child, and research has shown that the same process occurs between dogs and humans. One study showed that our oxytocin levels are even higher following interaction with our own dog, rather than someone else’s. What an excellent argument in support of owning a dog!
In many ways, our relationships with our dogs are simpler than those we have with other humans. As noted at the beginning of the article, when we come home after a rubbish day at work, being greeted by a happy, waggy-tailed beastie who is overjoyed to see us, is priceless.
They easily forgive us our bad moods and short temper. They never hold a grudge if we forget their birthday, leave dirty washing on the floor or spend too much money in Ikea. The unconditional love and acceptance that our dogs show us are often hard to find in our human relationships, and equally, hard for us to give others.
Less stress and anxiety
Having a dog to look after forces us to live in the moment. When we are focussed on someone else and their needs, it helps to relieve tension, and takes our minds off the things that are causing us stress.
To some extent, having a pooch around pulls attention away from ourselves and onto them. In this age of virtual, hyper self-absorption, the presence of a dog in our lives can pull us out of the insta/fb/twitter trap. In fact, I know plenty of pet owners whose dogs have an instagram page, even though they themselves don’t.
And petting a dog can be very calming, not just for us but for them too. It’s easy to relax around a well-behaved mutt and enjoy spending time in its company – whether it be lounging around at home or out walking.
K9s For Warriors provides service dogs for disabled American veterans suffering from ‘Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, Traumatic Brain Injury, and/or Military Sexual Trauma as a result of military service post-9/11’. The focus is on healing, to help the veteran and his / her paired service dog build a bond which facilitates recovery.
Rather wonderfully, their program rescues both dog and veteran, since around ‘90% of their service dogs come from shelters or are owner-surrendered. Instead of a life of abandonment or euthanasia, the dogs are given a new purpose. According to K9s For Warriors, “we save two lives; we rescue the dog, and the dog rescues the warrior. “
Owning a pet can be good to improve neighbourly relations
Dog owners typically have increased social interaction within their neighbourhood. Anyone who’s ever had a dog knows that walking your dog in your home area means chatting to people out in their gardens as you walk past, whether they have a dog or not, and spending hours talking to other dog owners. Having a dog provides a shared experience, something in common that immediately connects us and provides an easy starting point for interaction.
One study investigated the indirect role of pets as facilitators for three aspects of social interaction – getting to know people, friendship formation and social support networks – and found that having a dog can be a catalyst for many human social relationships in neighbourhood settings.
This isn’t the case if having a dog causes tension with the neighbours of course. A constantly barking pooch can be really annoying, as can those bad-apple dog owners amongst us, who still refuse to poop scoop (yes, sadly there are still people who don’t clean up after their dogs).
However, just seeing people out walking their dogs makes a neighbourhood feel safer, and in this sense, having a dog has a wider benefit for neighbourly relations.
Dog ownership and elderly people
All of these health benefits are especially important for older people: the combination of decreased physical activity in later life and increasing social isolation mean that elderly people are more susceptible to health problems. Dogs give us a reason to get out of the house, encouraging more exercise and providing opportunities for more social interaction. For any single person – elderly or otherwise – having a dog in our lives can make life more meaningful.
Looking after a dog can also provide a routine and structure to daily life, which can be helpful for those who suffer from dementia.
One important aspect though is the size and energy levels of the dog. I’m reminded of how my grandmother was unable to handle her labrador, Daisy. She couldn’t take her out for walks for risk of being pulled over. Daisy also occupied a lot of space on the bed. I know myself, having 2 dobermanns, how hard it is trying to shove 37 kilos of stubbornness to the side of the bed. Imagine trying to do that once you’re elderly and not so strong.
Another important thing to bear in mind is the increased risk of falling over – dogs can get underfoot, and that presents a potential problem for frail people.
So whilst there are many benefits of having a dog, you really do need to think carefully about which type of pooch is best for your lifestyle. A smaller, less boisterous dog would undoubtedly have been a better companion for my granny.
Pet therapy is becoming popular in hospitals, clinics and residential care home. Stroking a pet has been shown to lessen agitation and increase social interaction in patients with dementia (source).
Cardiovascular reactivity and the presence of pets, friends, and spouses: the truth about cats and dogs.
Lifetime Dog and Cat Exposure and Dog and Cat Specific Sensitization at Age 18 Years