Researchers Discover Two Astonishing Benefits of Dog Ownership

Written by Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

health benefits of dogs for humans

Story at-a-glance -

  • People who own dogs have a lower risk of heart disease and a lower risk of premature death than non-dog owners
  • Exposure to dogs in early life is associated with a lower risk of eczema and allergies
  • When dogs and their owners engage in a mutual gaze, levels of the calming “love hormone” oxytocin rise in both the owners and their dogs
  • Dogs develop many of the same diseases as humans, from cancer to metabolic conditions to symptoms of dementia; learning more about these conditions in dogs gives valuable insights into how these diseases progress, and could ultimately be cured, in humans

The U.S. is home to nearly 70 million pet dogs,1 and their owners enjoy unconditional love, loyal companionship and often lovably quirky personalities as a result. These intangible benefits of dog ownership are what make them the most popular pet in America (based on the number of households that have a dog under their roof).

Yet, some of the benefits of pet ownership can be measured and quantified, many of them as they relate to your health. There’s no question that curling up next to your favorite pooch at the end of a long day is warming to the soul, but research continues to confirm that your canine partner in crime may be making you physically healthier as well.

Your Dog May Help You Live Longer

People who own dogs have a lower risk of heart disease and a lower risk of premature death than non-dog owners, with the benefit being particularly pronounced among singles. Writing in the journal Scientific Reports, researchers explained:2

“Dogs may be beneficial in reducing cardiovascular risk by providing a non-human form of social support and increasing physical activity. Dog ownership has been reported to be associated with alleviation of social isolation and improved perception of wellbeing, particularly in single persons and the elderly.”

Among single-person households, dog owners had a 33 percent lower risk of premature death and a 36 percent lower risk of heart disease than those without a dog. Among those with dogs living in multi-person households, premature death and heart disease death risk were 11 percent and 15 percent lower, respectively.

Part of the benefit could be linked to increased physical activity, which dog owners tend to have over non-dog owners. Among older women, for instance, dog ownership was associated with a higher likelihood of walking at least 150 minutes a week and a lower likelihood of being sedentary for eight or more hours a day.3

Other research that involved reviewing data from nine studies revealed that nearly 2 in 3 dog owners walked their dogs, and those who did were more than 2.5 times more likely to engage in healthy amounts of moderate-intensity physical activity each week. “These findings suggest that dog walking may be a viable strategy for dog owners to help achieve levels of PA [physical activity] that may enhance their health,” according to study authors.4

Another way dogs may boost heart health and longevity is via beneficial effects on blood pressure. In a study of 1,570 peopled aged 60 years or over, owning a dog was associated with a 3.34 mmHg decrease in systolic blood pressure.

Dr. Ragavendra Baliga, a cardiologist and professor of internal medicine at Ohio State University’s Wexner Medical Center, told The Columbus Dispatch, “To put that into perspective, even a 2 mm reduction in systolic blood pressure is associated with a 6 percent reduction in stroke, a 4 percent reduction in coronary heart disease and a 3 percent reduction in overall mortality.”5

And even the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) states that pets can decrease your blood pressure and triglyceride levels.6

Dogs May Lower the Risk of Eczema and Asthma in Kids

It was once believed that exposure to dogs (or cats) at birth may increase the risk of allergic disease, but now it’s thought that it may actually decrease it.7 Two studies presented at the 2017 American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology (ACAAI) Annual Scientific Meeting added further evidence of the protective nature of dogs, in particular.8 In the first study, exposure to a dog during pregnancy was associated with a lower risk of eczema in babies by age 2.

The second study looked at exposure to dogs in children with asthma, analyzing the effects of allergic proteins and other “elements,” such as bacteria, carried by the dogs. In this case, the elements appeared to have a protective effect on asthma, although exposure to the allergen may have worsened the children’s symptoms.

It’s likely that early exposure to the diverse bacteria and other microbes from dogs benefits infants by helping to prime their immune system to function optimally. Exposure to pets while in the womb or up to 3 months of age is even linked to higher levels of certain gut microbes linked to a reduced risk of allergies and obesity.9

Interacting With Your Dog Releases the Stress-Relieving ‘Love Hormone’

Spending time with your dog may leave you feeling calmer and happier, benefits that may have to do with the release of the “love hormone” oxytocin. When dogs and their owners engage in a mutual gaze, levels of oxytocin rise in both the owners and their dogs.10 This may partly explain why regular visits with therapy dogs and other human-animal interactions (HAIs) may improve mental health and well-being.

As noted by researchers in Frontiers in Psychology, “Oxytocin and HAI effects largely overlap, as documented by research in both, humans and animals, and first studies found that HAI affects the oxytocin system … “We propose that the activation of the oxytocin system plays a key role in the majority of … reported psychological and psychophysiological effects of HAI.”11 Among them are benefits for:

Social behavior

Mood

Stress

Fear and anxiety

Immune system functioning

Pain management

Trustworthiness and trust toward other people

Reduced aggression

Enhanced empathy

Improved learning

Dogs Give Clues to Fight Human Diseases

When they’re not benefitting our health directly, dogs are lending a helping paw to science by giving researchers clues to human diseases. Dogs develop many of the same diseases as humans, from cancer to metabolic conditions to symptoms of dementia.

Learning more about these conditions in dogs gives valuable insights into how these diseases progress, and could ultimately be cured, in humans. One example is glioma, an aggressive form of brain tumor that occurs in both humans and dogs, especially brachycephalic breeds like boxers and bulldogs.

By analyzing the genome of the closely related dog breeds at increased risk of these human-like brain tumors, they were able to identify three genes associated with glioma that are present in both dogs and people.12 In regard to dementia, researchers revealed that the structure of cognitive abilities in dogs is similar to that in people.13

Study author Rosalind Arden, Ph.D. of the London School of Economics and Political Science in the U.K. told MedicalNewsToday, "Dogs are one of the few animals that reproduce many of the key features of dementia … understanding their cognitive abilities could be valuable in helping us to understand the causes of this disorder in humans and possibly test treatments for it."14

From encouraging humans to get more exercise to potentially warding off allergies, protecting heart health, increasing lifespan and helping to advance the fight against human diseases, it seems there’s no end to the gifts dogs keep giving — and the many reasons why dogs continue to retain the title of “humans’ best friend.”