Puppy love: the health benefits of owning a dog

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Amy Swales
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Our relationship with dogs has evolved over thousands of years, and as they integrated themselves into our lives, we didn’t seem to mind all that much.

Yes, it’s likely dogs initially saw us as a good source of food – wherever humans were, easy pickings were surely had – and we found a use for them as working animals. But beyond the practical, we’ve kept them around, establishing a bond like no other. And it turns out there are several good reasons for that.

A recent study reveals canine owners walk 22 minutes more a day than those without dogs, and what’s more, the exercise counts as ‘moderate’ – thus properly helping keep us healthy. Of course, the news that dog owners walk more is hardly a surprise, but it underlines that there are numerous health benefits to owning a dog.

And while dog owners clearly don’t need to be convinced, we thought we’d produce a handy guide for all the people in your life who might need a tiny nudge in the right direction, fully backed by science.

A few of the benefits apply to any pet ownership, although we’d imagine any stress relief for cat lovers is offset by the added tension of never knowing when the furry ball of evil will turn on you.

Below, we’ve listed the ways owning a dog can boost both your physical and mental health, and if you’re tempted into finally making the leap (this island full of puppies should ice the cake) do know there’s also a psychological benefit to homing a rescue dog or puppy rather than buying from a breeder.

See you in the park…

The health benefits of owning a dog

Less Stress

Research has shown there is a physiological mechanism in place that means spending time with our dog is actually physically relaxing. A few minutes of stroking prompts the release of ‘feel-good’ hormones in us, including serotonin and oxytocin, and reduces levels of cortisol, the primary stress hormone.

As well as actual physical effects on the body, surveys have revealed self-reported benefits such as feeling more optimistic and less worried, likely due to the fact dogs have a seemingly endless supply of enthusiasm – something it’s hard to be miserable in the face of.

Psychologist Dr. Deborah Wells, who specialises in animal behaviour at Queen’s University Belfast, says that this translates to physical benefits: “The mere action of stroking, or even looking at, the animal can lower short-term levels of heart rate and blood pressure.”

Improved mental health

Research from 2011 found that pet owners tend to be less lonely, have higher self-esteem, exercise more, be more extroverted and be less fearful about getting close to others than non-owners. Emphasising the positive effect on our other relationships, the authors of the study said they “repeatedly observed evidence that people who enjoyed greater benefits from their pets also were closer to other important people in their lives and received more support from them.”

Harley Street psychologist Dr Becky Spelman tells that several studies have shown that dog ownership has an impact on our relationships with others, which can be extremely useful for anyone who struggles socially: “Pet relationships help people form better relationships with other humans, and actually statistically increases the likelihood of random interactions with other humans, as the dog-owning world is particularly sociable.

“Caring for a dog well is a particularly good method of helping people overcome social anxiety, and has been known to rekindle older people’s desire for life, sometimes extending ages.”

She adds: “It also helps some introverted people to express more extrovert behaviours with dogs that require clear leadership.”

Boosts immunity

It might not sound pleasant to say that dogs in the home obviously increase the amount of bacteria, but the exposure is a good thing – when we get too clean about germs, we don’t build up immunity. A 2013 study revealed that homes with dogs have greater bacterial diversity which can have “direct or indirect effects on human health”.

Dogs can lower a child’s chance of becoming allergic to animals by up to 33 %, according to a 2004 study. A 2010 study had similar findings, reporting that the onset of eczema in high-risk children (those with both parents suffering allergies) was less likely if a dog was in the house before they were a year old.

Building on previous research, a study released in 2017 revealed that pet exposure even counts in the womb – if a pregnant woman has a dog in the house, the study showed a twofold increase in two bacteria, Ruminococcus and Oscillospira, in the baby’s gut, which are linked with reduced childhood allergies and obesity respectively.

Raises happiness levels

Previous research suggests dogs have the same range of emotions as a toddler, and due to our instinct to nurture and be nurtured, it’s possible we love them in the same way we love children.

And this isn’t a case of non-pet lovers thinking dog owners are simply treating their pets as replacement or practice children – a study published in 2015 showed that mutual gazing between dogs and owners activates the same hormonal response in both parties (a rise in oxytocin levels) as that between babies and mothers.

Plus, there’s anecdotal evidence to suggest the boundless enthusiasm dogs have for the smallest of things helps us appreciate what we have and everyday pleasures. Dr Spelman says many of her patients have reported just such a benefit: “The simplicity with which dogs approach joy is a lesson to us all – namely, to appreciate what we have in the moment. Dogs focus upon the immediacy of making the most of the opportunity available to them right then.

“Many dog owners report that seeing this on a daily basis helps them increase their ability to also do this, which is one of the key pillars of happiness.”

Maintains physical health

Several studies worldwide have found that dog owners hit the recommended daily target for exercise, and even without the regular walkies, let’s face it: you’re far more likely to walk for pleasure in your spare time so the dog can come along too.

The team behind the recent study on how dog owners walk more (whose previous studies may or may not have included research on where bears relieve themselves), point out that it’s not just the time we spend walking, but the quality of the exercise they were surprised by: “Not only did we see an increase in exercise, but also the exercise was at a moderate pace.”

In fact, a large-scale study in 2013 found that brisk walking is actually more effective than running in lowering several health risks, including first-time high blood pressure, heart disease, high cholesterol and diabetes.

Apart from the obvious walking benefits and the immediate stress-reliever of dog interaction lowering blood pressure and heart rate (as mentioned earlier), there are plenty of longer-term benefits too – a recent review of all available studies by the American Heart Association (AHA) found that dog owners seem to have a better cholesterol profile, lower blood pressure, be less vulnerable to the physical effects of stress and be more likely to survive a heart attack.

In fact, the AHA report finds that pet ownership can protect against cardiovascular disease, with the expert panel concluding that owning a dog in particular was “probably associated” with a reduced risk of heart disease.

Dogs have long been known to have the ability to sniff out cancer and while there’s a mountain of anecdotal evidence from owners who say they were prompted to visit the doctor after their dog started acting strangely, later being diagnosed with cancer, in 2015, an official NHS trial was given the go-ahead. Dogs are also used as assistance and alert animals for people with conditions that cause them to black out or have convulsions, such as epilepsy, as they can be trained to sense when a fit is oncoming and to seek help.

There’s a general idea that people who own pets live longer than those who don't. While there aren’t many studies into that as a whole, it’s certainly true of specific high-risk parts of the population (such as the elderly and those recovering from a heart attack) and with this amount of proven health benefits, it would seem logical to make the assumption.

Benefit your colleagues

If you’re lucky enough to work somewhere that allows you to take your dog with you, you could be benefiting not just yourself, but the whole office.

Studies show that people who interact with a pet while working have lower stress levels throughout the day, while people who do not tend to see their stress levels increase over time.

Dogs in the office also lead to people taking more breaks, whether out of the office or simply away from their screens for a few minutes to pay the dog attention. It’s been proven that regular breaks energise us, which leads to greater job satisfaction and productivity. Data from Blue Cross even estimates that sick days are reduced, with 70% of healthcare professionals saying it can reduce absenteeism.

As explained here, some research found that having dogs around promoted cooperation and cohesion within teams on tasks – possibly down to the production of our old friend oxytocin. Less work stress has to be good for your health, right?

Convinced yet?

Thousands and thousands of dogs are waiting to be rehomed in the UK. If you’re interested in adopting a rescue dog or puppy, visit centres such as Dogs TrustBattersea Dogs & Cats Home and RSPCA, or look up your local shelter.

Images: iStock


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Amy Swales

Amy Swales is a freelance writer who likes to eat, drink and talk about her dog. She will continue to plunder her own life and the lives of her loved ones for material in the name of comedy, catharsis and getting pictures of her dog on the internet.