It’s been observed by Orhan Pamuk that “dogs do speak, but only to those who know how to listen.” If you’re one of those who feel comfort and joy around your pet, you understand just what this article is about – the benefits of owning a pet go far beyond warm companionship. You understand the very real health benefits of having a pet. And if you aren’t among those who understand the “words” your pet is speaking in a glance she or he gives you, a turn towards or away from something, a bark, then it’s time to catch up to date on the latest scientific findings. Owning a pet is medicine.
Lassi the gorgeous Collie, Rin Tin Tin the German Shepherd, Snoopy, the world’s most recognizable Beagle and Toto, who followed Dorothy down the yellow brick road had the potential to do more than just bring joy.
That’s right. Owning a pet may be genuinely beneficial for your physical and mental health. From helping you be more active, calmer and more sociable, to reducing blood pressure and cholesterol levels, lowering your risk for heart disease and even extending longevity, owning a pet has been found to have wonderful health consequences.
In 2013, the American Heart Association offered a Scientific Statement indicating that owning a pet is clearly associated with decreased cardiovascular risks. One study found that those taking medication for hypertension experienced a profound reduction in their blood pressure response to stress if they had a dog.
Dog owners appear to be report fewer feelings of depression, loneliness, fatigue and stress. Gently petting your dog has been shown to help reduce feelings of tension and stress and promote greater presence and awareness, thus increasing mindfulness. The neurochemical oxytocin that’s released when you experience your pet’s unconditional love, and feel the calming presence and social bound that he/she offers, provides as real a feeling of joy as any other one can experience. Petting your dog lowers cortisol levels, the stress hormone, just the way exercise might.
I recall a poster in the halls of the American Council on Exercise showing an individual walking her dog – or was it the other way around? The line on the poster said, “Think of your dog as your trainer with hair.”
Since we’re all concerned with promoting and maintaining our fitness, don’t think just sitting there petting your dog on the couch all day will do that. In fact, one study at the University of Missouri found that walking your dog improves fitness more than walking with other people! Additional research has found that dog owners walk on average 300 minutes per week while non-owners walk on average 168 minutes per week. The Journal of Activity and Health reported in an article that dog owners are 54% more likely to meet the suggested guidelines for physical activity levels, compared to non-owners. And Loyola University Chicago researchers reported that pet therapy has played a significant role in reducing pain following joint replacement surgery, requiring less pain medication.
One of the truly remarkable findings in the pet-health interplay however, and what impresses me most, is how pets can sense health issues among owners. No, I’m not talking about robot pets, but real live breeds of all kinds seem to be able to be trained to know when their owner has blood sugar levels that are dropping even before the owner is aware of it. Why? It’s in your breath. The ketoacidosis that follows being unable to use sugar as fuel changes the smell in your breath your pet can learn to identify. Dogs have also been effective in sniffing out bladder, breast, lung, ovarian, colon and skin cancers. And among children, one study reported that the rate of eczema is lower among those with a family pet.
So Fido may be an early warning health system and a health promoter, on top of being your best friend. Definitely worth the average cost of about $875 annually for a large dog according to the ASPCS – not including unexpected veterinary bills, wouldn’t you agree?