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Studies Reveal a Stunning Treatment for Human Anxiety and Depression

Written by Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

benefits of owning a dog

Story at-a-glance -

  • If you love a dog (or more than one), you know for sure they provide many more benefits than the blessings of companionship and affection
  • Science is at last catching up with what we dog-lovers know in our souls: our furry companions have a positive effect on our bodies and minds, as well as our hearts
  • One recent study revealed pet adoption can dramatically improve life for people with treatment-resistant major depressive disorder; another study suggests kids with dogs suffer far less anxiety than their non-dog owning peers
  • A 2017 study shows dog ownership decreases heart disease risk and increases longevity, especially in singles and seniors
  • Seniors with dogs are also significantly more physically active than those without a dog to walk and care for

For those of us who love and live with dogs, there’s absolutely no question they provide not only companionship, fun and affection, but significant mental and physical health benefits as well. Luckily, research is confirming what we already know about the ability of dogs to lower our stress level, decrease anxiety and depression, alleviate loneliness, inspire physical movement and encourage us to play and stay in the moment.

Caring for a dog helps kids learn responsibility, gain confidence and be more active. Having a dog who depends on them gives older adults a reason to get up and get moving every day. And all these benefits are wrapped in a funny, furry friend who also offers us the purest form of unconditional love.

Study Shows Pet Adoption Can Have a Dramatic Effect on Adults With Major Depressive Disorder

A 2018 study published in a psychiatric journal reports that adopting a pet can result in lower rates of recurrence in people suffering from severe depression.1 The benefits are so significant that even patients resistant to antidepressant medications or psychotherapy report improvement in their mental health. According to study authors:

“Treatment resistant major [depressive] disorder (TR-MDD) is a severe disease, with very low remission rates. The resistance to pharmacotherapy leads to the search of non-pharmacological alternative approaches. Animal therapy has been used in patients with psychiatric conditions and the results have been promising.”

While animal therapy has been used for many psychiatric conditions, the study authors noted that it hadn’t been tested clinically with patients with TR-MDD. According to Christian Jarrett, Ph.D., writer and editor of the British Psychological Society Research Digest:

“The prognosis (of TR-MDD) is not good. The low mood and emotional pain for these individuals has not lifted even though they are on a combination of antidepressant medications and may also have participated in psychotherapy.”2

Researchers assessed the effects on 33 patients who accepted the challenge to adopt a pet (primarily dogs) among 80 who were asked. Another 33 of that number, who neither adopted a pet nor had one already, served as the control group. The patients who adopted a pet improved “to the point where their symptoms could be considered mild,” reports the U.K.’s Independent.3

Children with Dogs May Be Less Likely to Suffer From Anxiety

In 2015, researchers from the Bassett Medical Center of Cooperstown, New York conducted a study looking into pets and children's health, and in particular, whether having a pet in childhood can help prevent chronic disease.4

The study involved 643 children with a mean age of 6.7 years. While no relationship was found between pet ownership and the kids’ body mass index, screen time or physical activity, there was an association with anxiety. Compared to children without dogs, a lower percentage of children with dogs met the clinical cut-off value of Screen for Child Anxiety and Related Disorders (SCARED-5, a test used to screen for childhood anxiety disorders).

Specifically, only 12 percent of children with dogs suffered from probable anxiety compared to 21 percent of those without. The study found "pet dog ownership was associated with a 9 percent reduction in the probability of a SCARED-5 score of three or higher," which is the point at which further assessment is recommended to diagnose anxiety.

Dog Ownership Can Decrease Heart Disease Risk and Increase Longevity

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

“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.”5

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 among dog parents. In older women, for instance, dog ownership was associated with a higher likelihood of walking at least 2.5 hours a week and a lower likelihood of being sedentary for eight or more hours a day.6

Another way dogs may boost heart health and longevity is via beneficial effects on blood pressure. In the 10-year-long National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey study of 1,570 people aged 60 years or over, having a dog was associated with a 3.34 mmHg decrease in systolic blood pressure.7

“To put that into perspective,” Dr. Ragavendra Baliga, a cardiologist and professor of internal medicine at Ohio State University’s Wexner Medical Center, told the Columbus Dispatch, “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.”

Seniors With Dogs Are Significantly More Active Than Their Pet-Free Counterparts

Another recent study suggests senior citizen dog parents are able to meet internationally recognized exercise goals as established by the World Health Organization (WHO) through the simple act of walking their canine companions.8

A team of U.K. researchers compared two groups of 43 older adults aged 65 to 81. One group consisted of dog parents; members of the other group did not own dogs. All the seniors lived on their own, and members of the two groups were matched by gender, height, weight, health conditions and walking abilities.

The two groups were evaluated on their time spent walking. They wore monitors to track their movements for three one-week periods over the course of a year. The weeks were chosen so the participants' steps could be measured during different seasons and weather conditions. Past research on this topic has relied on self-reporting by participants as to their level of physical activity. The use of activity monitors in this study provided objective data on patterns and intensity of physical activity, as well as periods of sitting.

The researchers discovered the dog-owning group walked an average of 22 minutes more per day than the dog-less group, which was enough to meet both U.S. and international exercise recommendations for substantial health benefits. And the extra exercise the dog walkers received was "marching," not "just dawdling," according to senior study author Dr. Daniel Simon Mills.

WHO recommends at least 150 minutes of moderate to vigorous weekly physical activity. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recom­mends adults get a minimum of 150 minutes a week of moderate-intensity exercise, or 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity aerobic activity a week.

The researchers also found that dog owners had fewer continuous periods of sitting down than non-dog owners. Mills, who teaches veterinary behavioral medicine at the University of Lincoln in England, told Reuters Health:

"It's very difficult to find any other intervention that produces this size of effect. It's good evidence that dog ownership amongst the elderly increases physical activity in a meaningful and healthy way."9

Mills feels the study proves that the exercise benefits of dog ownership stem from having dogs, not from the idea that dog owners are more active to begin with.