Why dogs do more for your health than you think

By Alistair Gardiner
Published October 14, 2020

Key Takeaways

When it comes to pets, dogs are unequivocally Americans’ top choice. According to a 2019/2020 pet owner survey, more than 63 million households in the United States have at least one dog—roughly 20 million more than the number of households that have a cat—which makes mutts the most widely-owned type of pet across the country. The lockdown measures prompted by the COVID-19 pandemic have only amplified this, with people coming out in droves to adopt a furry friend.

But, while every owner knows that pets make our lives better, most of us probably haven’t considered the science behind why and how our canine companions improve our well-being. According to the CDC, having a “fur baby” is linked to a plethora of health benefits, including reduced hypertension, lower cholesterol, lower rates of depression, and more.

Some of these benefits arise from obvious elements of dog ownership, but others may come as a surprise. Here are four reasons dogs do more for your health than you might think.

Walkies and weight-loss

Dogs usually require at least one daily walk to keep them fit, which benefits owners too. But just how much more exercise do dog owners get from this? According to a Journal of Physical Activity and Health review of 29 studies published from 1990-2010, roughly two-thirds of dog owners walked an average of 160 minutes per week and a median of four times per week, which is a greater amount and frequency than those in dog-less households.

Of course, one of the problems with research on exercise habits is that participants are often asked to self-report their physical activities, which can lead to imperfect datasets. In order to address this, a more recent study followed 43 pairs of dog owners and non-dog owners using wireless activity monitors over the course of a year. The study focused on older adults and the effect of dog ownership on sedentary behavior.

Researchers found that people living with a dog tended to spend an additional 22 minutes a day of moderate-intensity walking, for an approximate total of 2,760 additional daily steps. The study also found that dog owners had “significantly fewer sitting events” (ie, continuous periods of sitting). Both walking and reduced sedentary time have been linked to reduced body weight and improved cardiovascular health, among other benefits.

Another study found that you don’t even have to be a dog owner to reap the rewards—hanging out with other people’s dogs can help you keep fit, too. One small study that looked at the effects of walking a “loaner” dog found that participants who took walks with someone else’s dog for 20 minutes, five days a week, over the course of roughly a year lost an average of 14.4 lb.

Interestingly, participants’ most commonly stated reason for sticking to the regimen was that the dogs “need us to walk them,” and the researchers concluded that “commitment to a dog that is not one’s own may effectively facilitate physical activity.”

Happy dogs, healthy hearts, and longer life

Getting down to a healthy weight is just one of the exercise bonuses that dog owners get to enjoy. According to a recent systematic review of several studies conducted between 1950 and 2019, dog companionship is associated with decreased cardiovascular risks, lower blood pressure, improved lipid profile, and diminished sympathetic responses to stress. The review also found that dog owners were 31% less likely to have died from cardiovascular disease than those who didn’t have a dog.

In fact, the authors found that those living with a dog tend to have a lower overall risk of death in the long term. According to the review, dog owners were 24% less likely to have died of any cause, which the authors concluded may be driven by a reduction in cardiovascular mortality.

Similarly, a recently published Swedish study used national databases to look at the impact of dog ownership on adults recovering from a heart attack or a stroke between 2001 and 2012. Researchers found that, by the end of the study period, dog owners who had suffered a heart attack were 21% less likely to have died compared with non-dog owners. Likewise, dog owners who’d had a stroke were 18% less likely to have died by the end of the study period.

For those living alone with a dog, the findings were even more notable. This group experienced a 33% decrease in chances of death following a heart attack and a 27% drop in chance of death following stroke compared with non-dog owners.

More dogs, fewer allergies

If you’re thinking that the above associations are fairly self-evident, other established links may be less obvious. For example, a study published in JAMA Pediatrics found that children who grow up around dogs are less likely to develop asthma. Researchers in Sweden gathered data to evaluate the risk of asthma in all children born in the country between 2001 and 2010. While the study did not determine the reasons why, it found that school-age children who were around dogs during their first year of life had a 13% lower risk of asthma.

A more recent study found a link between individuals who are born into a dog-owning household and a decreased likelihood of developing allergic eczema. The study found that exposure to dogs from a young age is “significantly associated with a lower risk of eczema by age 2 years.” According to one of the authors of the study, which was originally presented at the 2017 American College of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology Annual Scientific Meeting, there is an observed progression from eczema to food, nasal, and other allergies, which means the possible protective elements of exposure to dogs could extend beyond just eczema. 

Doggies cure the blues

If you own a dog, you’re probably already aware of the joy they bring. Indeed, studies have found genuine links between having a canine companion and maintaining good mental health.

In 2017, psychologists at Miami University and Saint Louis University conducted several experiments to analyze the possible benefits of pet ownership. They found that dog owners (or any pet owner, for that matter) were happier, healthier, and better adjusted than non-dog owners.

In one of the experiments, 56 dog owners were examined to see if their pets helped to fulfill their social needs. Researchers found that dog owners expressed feeling a greater sense of belonging, self-esteem, and having a meaningful existence. Another one of the experiments showed that having a pet was as effective as having a close human friend when it came to warding off feelings of rejection.

Other studies have shown that having a pet can help reduce rates of depression even in those who are suffering from life-threatening diseases, like HIV-infected men.

Barking up the right tree

While many of the above studies don’t prove any causal effects between owning a dog and improvements in well-being, there is certainly a preponderance of evidence that owning a dog is associated with a wide range of health benefits. This is particularly true for the elderly and those living alone.

So, if you have the right environment to bring a furry friend into your life, what are you waiting for?

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