Why a Dog Might Be Your Best Health Investment
Maybe you’ve noticed this too, but it’s the free improvements I’ve made to my health—like changing my diet, walking, spending time in nature, and getting good sleep—that have benefited me far more than any of the health or fitness products I’ve purchased.
But, if I had to choose one “thing” that I’ve purchased over the years that has helped my health and wellbeing the most, our family dogs would be at the very top of the list.
Where supplements, gadgets, special activewear, and equipment have failed to live up to their hype—and tend to perform consistently poorly in studies—the good ol’ family dog consistently outperforms our expectations, even in studies.
Some of these benefits of the family pooch are obvious, others not so much:
1. Dog owners are more active
Dogs are motivators! Sixty percent of dog owners who walked their dogs for 10 minutes at a time or more, met the standard criteria for moderate to vigorous exercise.
If you understand how important walking is for human beings, then surely you can imagine how important it is for dogs, too. In fact, for them, it’s likely even more important, because for them it’s an also a pack-bonding activity.
Publicizing the importance of walking for dogs could even encourage dog-owners who aren’t currently walking their dogs. For some, providing good health and wellbeing for their canine friends can be more motivational than providing health and wellbeing for themselves.
Also, walking the dog gets people outdoors and in nature. Even a city street provides more sunshine and greenery than a treadmill in the home or gym.
Dogs and humans both share a need for socialization, and we can help each other in this department, too.
In studies observing the reactions people get while out and about with dogs, researchers have found that strangers offer more smiles and friendly glances to people with dogs, and are more likely to approach and have a conversation with someone with a canine companion. —The Atlantic
On a personal note, when my family and I moved to a new state a couple of years ago, walking the dogs helped me to meet nearly everyone in the neighborhood. Dogs are the perfect icebreaker. Frequent walks provide frequent opportunities to stay in touch with the community.
Also, dog parks and dog training classes offer more opportunities for people to make connections with each other via their pets.
3. Healthier Babies
Wait, what? Healthier babies? A paper published in the journal Pediatrics showed the following results:
In multivariate analysis, children having dogs at home were healthier (ie, had fewer respiratory tract symptoms or infections) than children with no dog contacts. Furthermore, children having dog contacts at home had less frequent otitis [inflammation of the ear] and tended to need fewer courses of antibiotics than children without such contacts.
4. Reduce Allergies in Children
Some might think pets make children more susceptible to allergies. This paper, in The Journal of Pediatrics, suggests that cats might increase the risk of eczema in children, but dogs are reduce the risk.
Dog ownership significantly reduced the risk for eczema at age 4 years among dog-sensitized children, cat ownership combined with cat sensitization significantly increased the risk.
Cats are great, too. Unfortunately, though, I am fairly allergic to their dander even though we had a family cat when I was younger. I still can’t resist petting kittens, even if I do break out into itchy red splotches soon after.
Dogs have also been shown to help protect children against asthma and infection, too. They protect from allergies in general, possibly via a distinct milieu of house dust microbial exposures. Which leads us to…
5. Healthier Gut Microbiome
Not only are dogs mankind’s best friend, but they may also be the source of some of our best germs. It could be that the associations between dog ownership and lower instances of allergy, infection, and eczema, etc. could be related to the germs they expose us to. This is from a paper in the Journal of Allergy & Clinical Immunology:
The presence of pets in a home during the prenatal period and during early infancy has been associated with a lower prevalence of allergic sensitization and total IgE levels in middle childhood. […] Pet exposure and delivery mode might be markers of infant exposure to distinct microbiomes.
Rob Knight, co-founder of the American Gut Project says:
“The idea of combining animal, human and environmental health, and seeing the whole picture through the lens of the microbes that we share, is an increasing direction for research.”
If our dogs influence our skin and gut microbiomes, which they do, it also makes sense to feed them well, to let them roll around in the soil (i.e. let them be dogs), and take good care of them. Indeed, taking care of them could relate closely with taking care of ourselves.
6. Less Anxiety
The Centers for Disease Control just published a study titled, Pet Dogs and Children’s Health: Opportunities for Chronic Disease Prevention? After the researchers controlled for age, sex, poverty level, and even “parent positivity” levels, they concluded:
Our study results suggest that children who have a pet dog in the home have a lower anxiety screening score than children who do not.
Twenty-one percent of children without dogs appeared to suffer from anxiety issues, compared to 12% of children with pet dogs. Since anxiety often appears to begin in childhood, these finding could have lifelong implications.
Understanding the human-dog relationship is as complex as understanding any relationship. Those of us who have lived with dogs our entire lives may find it difficult to put into words.
It could be straight-up anthropomorphism, but there is something about our canine friends that gives us the opportunity to see our own best selves. When responsibly bred and raised, our canine friends are happy, loyal, playful, friendly, protective, and always ready to give their love.
Throughout our dog friends’ 8- to 15-year lifespans, we share our homes, think of them as family, play together, walk together, comfort each other, and we feel terrible loss when their lives come to an end.
We may forget, because it’s so common, but the human relationship with dogs is a remarkable instance of cross-species bonding (although not entirely uncommon).
Not only do our dogs help keep us and our children healthy, but they teach us so much so much along the way. And that, my friends, will never find it’s way into a pill or winter catalog.
Disclaimer: This article fails miserably at providing you with a ccomplete list of the benefits dogs provide their human counterparts.
If you’re ready to add a pet to your family, this website will help you locate animal shelters, societies, and rescues near you. Please do consider adopting. With patience, you can even find a pure breed you may be looking for. Mutts and mixes tend to be healthier and have fewer medical problems as they age.
Just be sure you have the time and space to provide a good life for the animal you choose. Invest a little time teaching them basic manners, and your new friend will get along in your human world just fine.