Health Benefits of Owning A Dog | Research Backed
Is this fur ball that follows me around like a shadow, constantly looking at me with those puppy dog eyes no matter what age they are, really that healthy for me? Routine situations like leaving them at home is an everyday mini heartbreak.
Don't even start us on holidays where we try and think of any possible way to bring them with us and instead feel guilty as hell when they give us that aforementioned puppy eyes when we slowly close the door behind us, hearts breaking ever so slightly again.
BUT!!! We all know that's just because we love them so much! Read on...
It is a popularly held belief that dogs make our lives better, especially if you ask a dog owner! We wanted to take some time to look into this concept a little deeper to see if there is scientific research to support the idea that there are actual health benefits from canine companionship.
What we found was surprising, even to us! We found 15 ways in which research has shown positive health effects from time spent with dogs!
Although much of the research on how pups effect our health has been done in clinical settings with therapy and companion dogs, there is plenty of reason to believe that dog ownership can have positive effects on our health as well (1, 2, 3).
With rising healthcare costs, the positive effects of dogs on our overall health and their role in assisting in the work of healthcare professionals continue to be avid areas of scientific study (4, 5, 6). In this article, we will be breaking down some of that research for you.
We will start by looking at the physical health benefits of dog ownership and companionship followed by a look at their contribution to better mental and emotional health outcomes. Then we will look at the special contribution dogs are making in the quality of life for a variety of special needs populations. Finally, we will look at the larger social impact of canine companions in our lives.
THE PHYSICAL BENEFITS OF DOGS
Many of the researched benefits of dog ownership include improving our physical health. Many people are already aware of the benefits to heart health that spending time with animals can bring. However, the positives go well beyond that.
Dogs can help us manage pain, heal from injuries and surgeries, improve our immune systems, decrease levels of obesity and help predict dangerous symptoms and diagnose disease. All of these benefits of canines in our lives have been scientifically validated.
This section will explore the many ways that dogs can improve our physical health.
1. Dogs Decrease Blood Pressure & Lower Heart Rates.
The CDC (Centers For Disease Control & Prevention) has listed heart disease as the leading cause of death for both men and women. Multiple research studies have shown that spending time with dogs can lower blood pressure as well as decrease heart rates. In fact, this is one of the most studied effects on dogs on our physical health. (7, 8)
The heart benefits of dogs have been confirmed in a variety of different clinical contexts and target populations such as seniors (9), college students (10), and children (11). Dog owners that are receiving an ACE inhibitor for hypertension have even been shown to be more responsive to treatment (12).
As we will explore later in this article, it seems that dog ownership may be correlated with lower overall risk factors associated with heart disease as well (13). Given the prevalence of heart disease in the modern world, this is a major contribution to human health.
The link between dog ownership, and just spending time with dogs in general, and better heart health are well supported by a large body of scientific research on the subject. Although every situation is different, owning a dog is more likely than not going to have heart health benefits for those of us lucky enough to have canines in our lives.
- Spending time with dogs can lower blood pressure as well as decrease heart rates.
- Dog ownership's linked with lower overall risk factors associated with heart disease.
2. Dogs Lower Stress Levels.
Related to the potential heart benefits of dog ownership is their ability to lower our stress levels and help us cope with trying times. Most of us with furry pals have already experienced this effect. However, the research suggests that this effect is more than just anecdotal.
One of the measures of stress used in clinical settings is the presence of a hormone known as cortisol which can be easily measured in our saliva. Cortisol testing has demonstrated that interaction with dogs often lowers cortisol levels in our bodies, demonstrating that our stress levels are going down (14).
The most studied relationship involving dogs and stress levels in people include many trials looking at the so called “pet-effect” of therapy dogs. This large body of research confirms in a variety of clinical settings that therapy dogs are providing real stress reducing effects (15). Even healthcare professionals, working in situations where they have short and fleeting contact with therapy dogs, have been shown to have decreased stress levels (16). Dogs are also becoming much more prevalent in the workplace now too, and you know why? The positive effects they have on the staff that work there!
The health effects of canine ownership on stress levels are not as well studied, however, some studies have demonstrated a similar stress reducing reaction when interacting with companion dogs (17). The stress reducing impact of time spent with dogs may even be more powerful than the calming effect of talking with a human friend (18).
One of the more amazing findings in recent studies shows that this effect is likely a two-way street. Using cortisol measurements, researchers have shown that when shelter dogs interact with humans, their stress levels also decrease (19).
It seems the more we learn about the relationship between dogs and humans, the more we find confirmation that the coevolution of humans and dogs has benefited both species (20).
- Cortisol testing has demonstrated that interaction with dogs often lowers cortisol levels in our bodies, demonstrating that our stress levels are going down
- Therapy dogs are providing real stress reducing effects to even healthcare professionals, working in situations where they have short and fleeting contact with them.
3. Dogs Promote Increased Levels Of Physical Activity And Have Positive Effects On Rates Of Obesity.
The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has identified obesity as a leading cause of health problems in the United States. Many chronic conditions such as type 2 diabetes, some cancers, and heart conditions are directly related to obesity, making it a very serious public health epidemic.
Many dog owners already know that having a dog means regular walks and opportunities for physical exercise. However, is there actual scientific evidence to support the notion that dog ownership positively effects our levels of activity? Yes! (21, 22).
The positive effects of pups on physical activity has been studied in people of all ages including children (23, 24), adolescents (25), adults (26) and seniors (27). Dog ownership has been linked to lower levels of obesity in numerous studies as well (28). The motivation that canine companions can encourage us to get more active is an important part of their positive impact on our lives (29).
- Children from dog-owning families spent more time in light or moderate to vigorous physical activity and recorded higher levels of activity counts per minute .
- Dog owners walked significantly longer than non-owners.
- Dog owners had significantly lower serum triglycerides (main constituents of body fat in humans) than non-owners.
- Dog walking was associated with a higher proportion of participants who met national recommendations for moderate to vigorous physical activity (53%) when compared to those who had but did not walk their dog (33%) and to non-dog owners (46%).
- There were significantly fewer obese dog walkers (17%) when compared to both owners who did not walk their dogs (28%) and non-owners (22%).
- Approximately 60% of dog owners walk their dog, with a median duration and frequency of 160 minutes per week and 4 walks per week.
4.Dogs Reduce Allergic Sensitivities & Asthma In Children.
The relationship between pet ownership and the development of allergies and asthma in children is still a matter of scientific study and some controversy. The immune system and its relationship with both of these conditions is still poorly understood.
However, some studies have demonstrated that exposure to pets in the household for infants and very young children may decrease rates of allergies and asthma later in life (31,32, 33, 34). The primary theory for why revolves around this critical period in terms of the development of the immune system in humans.
What is perhaps most fascinating about this growing body of research is that the reduction of sensitivities is not isolated to just the pets in the household, but seems to include reducing allergic reactions more broadly to include sensitivities to things like dust and pollen. (Dogs can develop sensitivities too so make sure you look after them as well if you notice anything).
Further, there is some evidence to suggest that exposure to dogs may even increase the body’s immune system more broadly (35).
- Exposure to dogs was associated with reduced allergen sensitization (19% for dog owners vs 33%, for Non Dog Owners).
- Owning a dog also reduced atopic dermatitis,a type of eczema (30% for Dog Owners vs 51% for non dog owners).
5. Dogs Assist With Pain Management.
Although mostly studied in the context of therapy dogs, there is some scientific evidence to support the notion that time spent with dogs can decrease our perceptions of pain (37, 38, 39, 40). This is particularly helpful for people suffering from the aftermath of painful surgeries or uncomfortable ongoing medical treatments.
Therapy dogs have also been used successfully to help those that suffer from chronic pain. Interestingly, the presence of therapy dogs seems to benefit the family as well as medical staff that make up the support system for such patients (41).
- Pain relief occurred in 34% of patients after the therapy dog visit and 4% of those in the waiting room.
6. Dogs Help Diagnose Disease & The Onset Of Dangerous Symptoms
Ever read 'The Art of Racing In The Rain' By Garth Stein? If not you should!
One of the most fascinating aspects of the relationship between canines and human health is their ability to detect disease and give warnings of impending exacerbations of certain medical conditions (42).
Here are a few of the conditions that dogs have played a role in detecting and assisting in treatment:
- Dogs have been trained for use in the detection of certain types of cancer.
- Narcolepsy is a potentially dangerous condition where sudden onset sleep episodes can present a major disability for those that suffer from that condition. Canines have been trained to detect a specific odor that predicts the onset of such an attack.
- Some dogs seem to be able to detect an impending migraine, offering critical support for those with chronic and debilitating migraines.
- Trained service dogs have demonstrated their ability to detect dangerous blood sugar levels, alerting people with diabetes to take preventative medications.
- Another form of potentially lifesaving alerting behavior is the ability to detect an impending seizure in people such as those that suffer from Epilepsy. Although it is not entirely clear how some dogs have this ability, the potential to improve the quality of life for those affected by periodic seizures is significant
- Two thirds (66.6%) of dog owners suffering from Type I diabetes believed their pets knew when the owners were experiencing hypoglycemia, and the dogs engaged in alerting behaviors such as nuzzling their owner and barking.
7. Dogs & Their Positive Effects On Rehabilitation.
In addition to helping with overall heart health, and helping to detect dangerous symptoms, dogs seem to be able to help with rehabilitation efforts of various kinds (50, 51, 52). Although studied mostly in the context of recovering from coronary events, the possibilities for helping with recovery seems untapped.
One of the most inspiring manifestations of this relationships with dogs is their use in helping wounded veterans recover from injuries and trauma. The Dogs Helping Heroes foundation is dedicated to pairing rescued dogs with veterans and Gold Star families for the love and support that these canines bring to their lives.
- Results showed that dog owners (96.5%) were significantly more likely to complete cardiac rehabilitation compared with non-owners (79.2%).
THE MENTAL & EMOTIONAL BENEFITS OF DOGS
The health benefits of owning dogs goes well beyond the physical domain. In fact, the benefits of dogs in helping people with psychological disabilities have been well documented in scientific research as well (53). Mental and emotional well-being are directly related to human health when we take a holistic approach.
The CDC reports that over 43 million adults in the United States struggled with mental health issues in the last year. With the stakes so high, understanding the benefit to mental health that dog ownership may offer is more important than ever.
How are canines improving mental and emotional health? Let’s look at a few examples:
8. Dogs Can Positively Impact Feelings Of Loneliness & Social Exclusion.
For most of us, our busy modern lives include a great deal of connecting on various forms of social media, and yet, feelings of social isolation and loneliness are more common than ever (54). Moreover, these feelings may be contributing to negative overall health outcomes (55).
Meanwhile, the rise of cyberbullying has become a major epidemic affecting children and teens (56). Social isolation is a real problem in the modern world, and it turns out that dog ownership can have a positive impact on helping us feel connected and supported.
Studies have shown that dogs reduce feelings of social isolation in clinical and real world settings (57, 58, 59). In addition, it seems that dogs facilitate social interactions between people, helping us to connect with one another (60, 61).
Although canines and humans have a long history together, it may be that the features of the modern world make their role more crucial than ever in improving our lives!
- Dogs reduce feelings of social isolation in clinical and real world settings.
- Dogs facilitate social interactions between people, helping us to connect with one another
9. Dogs Positively Affect The Development Of Social & Life Skills In At Risk Children.
A special case where dog ownership and canine assisted therapy has been particularly beneficial has been in programs that pair at risk youth with rescued dogs. Are there good reasons to see these programs as effective? The research suggests the answer is yes.
If you are interested in getting more involved in helping at risk kids while at the same time rescuing dogs from the shelter, check out K9 Connection, a nationally acclaimed organization doing this valuable work. What better way to make the world a better place for at risk youth and abandoned dogs!
10. Dogs Help With Depression.
The use of animal assisted therapy in the treatment of depression is well documented (65), however the effects may be complicated by several other factors (66). Still, the connection is substantiated by enough research that a correlation is clear.
Populations of various ages have shown significant positive effects in dealing with depression with the use of companion therapy dogs, or dog ownership:
- College students have shown increased relief of symptoms of depression when animal assisted therapy is added to a psychotherapy course of treatment for major depression.
- Seniors in an assisted living facility have benefited from visits from therapy canines.
- In clinical settings, people hospitalized with major depression have shown significant progress with anxiety and shown an enhanced response to treatment with the addition of time spent with dogs
It would be a mistake to think of dogs as a cure for depression suffers. However, there is enough research to substantiate the notion that canine ownership may well provide an additional source of emotional support for affected people.
DOGS BENEFITING THE SPECIAL NEEDS POPULATION
When we think about the benefits of dog ownership, it is important to recognize the critical role dogs play in the lives of the special needs population.
We start our investigation of these benefits of dog ownership with seniors, perhaps the most documented group in the scientific research on how dogs improve our lives. We will then look at some of the many other special needs populations that have been shown to benefit directly from dogs both in the home and in Animal Assisted Therapy contexts.
Taken as a whole, the lives of many people are directly improved by the special role canines play in our lives.
11. Helping Seniors Stay More Active.
One of the most important aspects of healthy senior living is maintaining an active lifestyle to maintain muscle tone, bone health and mobility. Dog ownership has shown to have a positive effect on the lives of seniors in terms of physical activity levels (70, 71, 72).
The effects of dog ownership for seniors may also increase their levels of self-care in a broader sense (73). Helping people to motivate to take better care of themselves is just one of the many benefits of owning a dog.
In many cases, senior dogs make the perfect pets for senior people. They tend to have lower exercise needs and appreciate some quiet cuddle time a little more than younger canines (just make sure you care for them correctly, read Wileypups Guide on the subject). Many local communities have programs to help match senior citizens with appropriate pets, making it easier to locate a good match.
12. Alleviating Some Symptoms Of Alzheimer’s & Other Forms Of Dementia.
According to the Alzheimer’s Association, more than 5 million Americans are suffering from Alzheimer’s, the most common form of dementia. The scope of the problem is even larger on the global scale. Multiple studies have shown that Alzheimer and dementia patients have benefited from dog therapy in clinical settings (74, 75).
Sundown Syndrome is a specific manifestation of some patients with Alzheimer’s. Symptoms include an increase in agitation, confusion, and/or aggressive behavior towards caregivers during the dusk hours. At least one study has shown that therapy dogs have relaxing effect on those suffering from Sundown Syndrome (76).
Other research has shown that the use of companion dogs decreased disorientation and increased social functioning among residents of a dementia rehabilitation program (77).
Moreover, the effects of dog ownership among those that suffer from dementia is a neglected area of research. However, it does seem at least likely that a family dog may have a positive effect for those caring for aging relatives confronted with dementia from home.
- Companion dogs decreased disorientation and increased social functioning among residents of a dementia rehabilitation program.
13. Benefits Of Dog Ownership For Other Special Needs Populations.
Service dogs serve a variety of special needs populations, improving both quality of life and assisting in rehabilitation efforts (78). Their role in making life better for tens of thousands of people often goes unnoticed by the general population, however, those involved in training and owning service dogs are well aware of their positive presence in the lives of many.
Families with autistic children have reported benefits ranging from increased social skills and family cohesion because of service dogs in the home (79). Seizure alert dogs have made life easier on those suffering from Epilepsy (80). The benefits to the deaf and those with mobility issues have also been well documented (81).
Moreover, some research has suggested that service dogs can reduce the workload on nursing staff working with special needs populations, an area that needs more study (82). Given the rising costs of healthcare, the role that service dogs may play in aiding nurses with their important work deserves more attention.
Another special need group that has shown to be particularly receptive to dog therapy and dog ownership are those afflicted with psychological disorders. Dog owners with mental illness have been shown to have higher levels of social activity and community integration, for example (83).
In addition, people that live alone may derive extra benefits from dog ownership (86). Both loneliness and depression seem to be significantly decreased when we invite furry friends into our lives.
- Families with autistic children have reported benefits ranging from increased social skills and family cohesion because of service dogs.
- Seizure alert dogs have made life easier on those suffering from Epilepsy.
- Great benefits to the deaf and those with mobility issues.
SOCIAL HEALTH BENEFITS OF DOG OWNERSHIP
So far, we have focused on the benefits of dog ownership on the lives of individuals. However, because the impacts of canines on our lives are so far reaching, there are larger social aspects of the benefits of dog ownership worth mentioning.
Is it possible that more dog ownership could translate into a better world? While no scientific study can prove that for sure, take a look at some of what we do know about the larger social benefits of dog ownership:
14. Decreased Overall Expenditures On Health For Society As A Whole.
The benefits of dog walking on increased levels of physical activities is potentially so profound that some efforts have been made to promote dog ownership for the sake of large scale benefits on the activity level of the population more broadly speaking. (87, 88, 89).
Large scale dog ownership might even have enough of an impact to translate into significant national savings on the cost of healthcare (90). Seniors in particular may benefit from the introductions of dogs as companions or as a part of a holistic treatment plan potentially lowering dependence on social services (91).
Some have also argued that building more dog friendly spaces into urban planning efforts could have positive health effects for the community as a whole (92). Planning for the integration of canines into our urban and suburban public and private spaces may well have long reaching positive benefits to people living in those areas, even if they are not themselves dog owners.
15. Dog Ownership Promotes Social Activity, Strengthen Neighborhoods & Increase Sense Of Belonging To The Community.
Recent studies have shown that communities that have more dog friendly spaces offer opportunities for people to create a sense of community around dog ownership, adding value to neighborhoods and improving our lives by increasing our social connections and investment in the health of our communities.
Dog ownership has been shown to increase social interactions and raise perceptions of community (93). A so-called “ripple effect” of dog ownership suggests that the combined positive effects of dogs, including many of the benefits already discussed in this article, add up to stronger communities (94, 95).
Although the research remains somewhat limited on this topic, the potential benefits beg for further investigation. Could higher levels of dog ownership actually have health benefits that extend beyond those of us that love our pets? It certainly seems likely.
- In the summer, dog-owners on average spent 213.6 min/week in neighborhood walking, compared with non-owners who spent on average 123.3 min/week
The conclusion is clear: There are plenty of researched backed health benefits of owning a dog. Not only do dogs bring joy and purpose into our lives, but their companionship may also be making us healthier and overall better human beings.
The physical benefits for dogs in terms of lowering blood pressure and heart rates are perhaps the most well researched direct benefits of dog ownership. However, as we have seen, research also suggests that canines improve our physical health by encouraging more physical activity, helping us heal, benefiting our immune development, and assisting in the detection of potentially dangerous conditions.
Our emotional and mental health is also improved by dog ownership. Depression, loneliness and feelings of social isolation are all too common problems for people in the modern world. Canines have a positive impact on all of these conditions. In addition, at risk youth may be particularly well served by programs encouraging interaction with dogs.
People with special needs are perhaps most directly served by dog ownership. As we have shown, people with a variety of disabilities have drastically improved quality of life as a direct result of the service dogs in their lives.
The wider social impact of canines is an area of research that is promising and demands more inquiry. It is possible that even those of us that choose not to have dog in our households may still be benefiting from their presence in our communities and neighborhoods. Moreover, the potential healthcare savings on a large scale may even warrant government programs to promote dog ownership in some cases.
Join In The Conversation!
We hope you have found this article informative and helpful. Please feel free to pass on the good news about the benefits of dog ownership by sharing this article. We also welcome your comments below if you have other studies that you think are worth including, or if you have a personal story on the subject that would add to the conversation!
Sharon Elber (M.S. in Science & Technology) - Professional Dog Trainer
Sharon is a professional dog trainer with over 10 years experience. She is also a professional writer that received her M.S. in Science & Technology Studies from Virginia Tech.
For more info on Sharon click here