There are so many great, intangible benefits of owning a dog: companionship, laughter, puppy love. But there’s a growing body of science showing that owning a dog also yields lots of verifiable health benefits.
Really! There’s nearly a quarter century of research (and growing) cataloging the benefits of sharing your life with a dog, including decreased stress, psychological well-being, heart health, better immunity, cancer detection, and even allergy reduction.
How’s it work? Check it out.
Dogs greatly increase psychological well-being.
Dog owners are much more likely to suffer from negative psychological effects—especially in stressful situations.
In fact, this was measured by Dr. Karen Allen, an assistant professor of medicine at the University of Bufflo. She surveyed the blood pressure response to stressful situations in a group of 48 stockbrokers. Of those 48 people, 24 were selected at random to incorporate a dog or cat into their day.
The results? The 24 folks who added a dog or cat into their regimen had significantly lower blood pressure than those who did not.
But that’s not the crazy part.
At the time of the study, all 48 were being treated for hypertension (high blood pressure) with a drug called lisinopril, an angiotensin converting enzyme (ACE) inhibitor commonly used to ameliorate high blood pressure.
And the dogs worked better than the drugs! They worked so well, in fact, that when Dr. Allen told the control (non-pet folks) about the results, many of them went out and got dogs.
And this isn’t the first of Dr. Allen’s studies to show something similar. One of her studies showed that companionship with a dog can substitute for human friendship. Specifically, she showed that owning a dog provides similar psychological benefits to that of having a friend around for older women who live in isolation.
So, maybe “crazy cat ladies” aren’t so crazy after all; maybe they just know a bit about psychology.
In another study (Siegel JM, Angulo FJ, Detels R, Wesch J, Mullen A. AIDS Diagnosis and Depression in the Multicenter AIDS Cohort Study: the Ameliorating Impact of Pet Ownership. AIDS Care. April 1999), researchers found that AIDS patients who owned dogs were less likely to be depressed than non-dog owners.
In other words, there’s a lot of good, hard science that says dogs really do make people happier, and they can have a pretty big impact for people in very stressful situations.
Dogs also help develop social well-being.
It’s no secret that dog owners are part of a large, global community of folks who just kind of… understand each other.
There are plenty of online communities like PetsDating, which helps dog owners meet and set up play dates—or even YouMustLoveDogsDating, which helps dog owners actually set up romantic dates with other dog owners.
Also, people just love dogs, and if you meet a person who has a dog (or just likes dogs), it provides something easy and convenient to talk about. It’s kind of like what happens when two guitarists meet: they geek out of all the nuances of playing guitar.
It’s an icebreaker. It’s common ground.
For that reason, dogs provide an excellent social foundation and a focus for conversation, which can be enormously helpful for shy or socially isolated people, according to Nadine Kaslow, PhD, professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Emory University in Atlanta.
There’s science to back this up, too. Nicolas Guéguen, professor at Université de Bretagne Sud, published a study called “Domestic Dogs as Facilitators in Social Interaction: An Evaluation of Helping and Courtship Behaviors” in the journal Anthrozoos: A Multidisciplinary Journal of The Interactions of People & Animals.
He found that when a dog was present, people were more like to (1) help other people and (2) engage in flirty behavior.
How cool is that? Dogs can really can help you get dates, and the science says so.
Pets contribute to good cardiovascular health.
It turns out that dogs are good for your heart in more ways that just giving you a furry little friend to love. They actually contribute to good overall cardiovascular health.
How? Well, first, as mentioned before, they can significantly reduce stress, anxiety and blood pressure (as we saw in the studies by Dr. Karen Allen).
That’s not all, though. Studies on how dogs affect blood pressure have been conducted by both The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the National Institute of Health (NIH).
They found that not only did dog owners have lower blood pressure, but they also exhibited lower cholesterol and triglyceride levels. Together, these three things significantly reduce the risk of having a heart attack.
But dogs can even help patients recover from heart attacks—and in the same way: by helping reduce blood pressure, cholesterol and triglycerides.
Plus, people who own dogs tend to be slightly more active than non-dog owners, since they’re likely to go on at least one walk per day.
Living with a dog reduces risk of developing allergies.
James E. Gern, MD, a pediatrician at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, reported that conventional thinking about dogs and allergies is largely misguided.
He notes that, historically, allergy-prone people tended to avoid owning dogs, since, well, they didn’t want to be itching and sneezing for their whole lives (which makes sense, I suppose).
Dr. Gern’s research indicates that the opposite may be true. In a study published in the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology, he found that kids who grow up in homes with a pet who has fur (e.g. a dog), are less likely to develop both allergies and asthma.
By studying the blood of new-born babies and comparing it to their blood one year later, Dr. Gern found that infants who lived in homes with dogs were 42.5% less likely to develop allergies to pets.
As a little bonus, that group was also less likely to get eczema, a skin allergy.
Why is this the case? According to Dr. Gern, it’s mostly because dogs are dirty. They play in the mud and eat their own… well, you know. So, babies who lie with dogs are exposed to more allergens, which helps them develop more robust immune systems.
Dogs can detect cancer.
There have been scientific reports of dogs detecting cancer for at least 20 years, but among the first was a report published in The Lancet in 1989.
In the report, a patient mentioned that her dog was relentless sniffing at one of her moles. And not just sniffing—he even tried to bite it off! Understandably, the patient went to have it checked out, and it turned out to be malignant melanoma (which, of course, she had removed).
But it’s not just melanoma dogs can sniff out. Multiple scientific studies have shown dogs can also detect various other types of cancer, including lung cancer, breast cancer, bladder cancer, and colon cancer.
In fact, some dogs have been trained to detect cancer in the same way police dogs are trained to smell drugs.
One dog in particular—a lab named Panda—correctly identified colorectal cancer by sniffing patients breath and stool samples. Even cooler, she could smell this particular type of cancer in this very early stages, so she quite literally saved a few lives!
How cool is that?
We love our dogs, but it’s absolutely amazing that they can be so astoundingly good for your health.
And they’re not just kind of good for your overall well-being. There’s loads and loads of science out there that supports a multitude of physiological and psychological benefits that are all the result of owning and loving a puppy (if you’d like to read more detailed information about the science, I wrote about how dogs make humans healthier here). If that doesn’t make your day, I don’t know what will!