Did You Know Your Pet Was This Incredible?

Analysis by Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

Story at-a-glance -

  • Everyone who loves and lives with dogs knows how much they add to our lives
  • Scientific studies are now confirming what we already knew or at least suspected about the benefits of canine companionship
  • Among recent research findings are that dogs may help us live longer, relieve feelings of stress, encourage us to be more physically active and add structure to our day
  • They may also help us save on health care costs, relieve severe depression in adults, lessen anxiety in kids, build a sense of community and teach children priceless lessons about life

Everyone who loves and lives with dogs knows how much they add to our lives, and scientific studies are now confirming what we already knew or at least suspected about the benefits of canine companionship. Among recent research findings are that dogs may help us live longer, relieve feelings of stress, encourage us to be more physically active and add structure to our day.

They may also help us save on health care costs, relieve severe depression in adults, lessen anxiety in kids, build a sense of community and teach children priceless lessons about life.

10 Evidence-Based Benefits of Canine Companionship

1. Your dog may help you live longer — This is especially true if you’re single or a senior. Your dog may help reduce your cardiovascular risk by providing both social support and increased physical activity. The results of a recent study showed that single dog parents had a 33% lower risk of premature death and a 36% lower risk of heart disease than people without a dog. Another way dogs may boost heart health and longevity is via beneficial effects on blood pressure and triglyceride levels.

2. Hanging with your dog can leaving you feeling relaxed and content — Spending time with your dog may help you feel calmer and happier, benefits associated with the release of the “love hormone” oxytocin. When you and your furry companion gaze at one another, your levels of oxytocin increase. This may explain why regular visits with therapy dogs have been shown to improve mental health and well-being.

3. If you’re a parent, your dog may lower your child’s risk of eczema and asthma — A growing body of research suggests dogs in the home decrease the risk of allergic disease in children. In one study, exposure to a dog during pregnancy was associated with a lower risk of eczema in babies by age 2.

Early exposure to the diverse bacteria and other microbes from dogs may benefit 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.

4. Senior dog parents walk more and sit less — A recent U.K. study compared two groups of older adults aged 65 to 81. One group owned dogs; the other group did not. The two groups were evaluated on their time spent walking as measured by individual activity trackers.

The dog-owning group walked an average of 22 minutes more per day — enough to meet both U.S. and international exercise recommendations for substantial health benefits. The researchers also found that dog owners had fewer continuous periods of sitting down than non-dog owners.

5. Retirees receive substantial emotional benefits from dog ownership — For people entering retirement, a dog provides companionship and alleviates loneliness. In addition, your dog becomes a focal point for your attention and requires you to provide a certain amount of structure to each day.

Dogs are also something to touch, which can be especially beneficial for retirees who live alone. People derive comfort from the presence of a dog on their lap or lying next to them. Dogs also need to be cared for, and the act of nurturing a pet enhances emotional and physical relaxation.

Dogs are, of course, fun and funny, which can bring much-needed joy and laughter to the lives of seniors. In addition, studies show dog walkers are more likely to interact socially with other people when they're out and about with their pet.

6. Your canine companion may save you money on health care — A 2015 study conducted on behalf of the Human Animal Bond Research Institute (HABRI) Foundation found that Americans save $11.7 billion annually in health care costs due to pet ownership. HABRI Executive Director, Steven Feldman, even said, "Thinking about things that people should do to maintain their health, 'get a pet' belongs on that list."

The cost savings was primarily due to a lower incidence of doctor visits. Pet owners — 132.8 million in all — visited a doctor 0.6 times less than non-pet owners. About 20 million dog owners also walked their pet five or more times a week, which lowered the incidence of obesity in this group, leading to another $419 million in health care savings.

7. Adopting a dog can have a dramatic effect on adults with major depressive disorder — A 2018 study concluded that adopting a pet can result in lower rates of recurrence in people suffering from severe depression. The benefits are so significant that even patients resistant to antidepressant medications or psychotherapy report improvement in their mental health.

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 were considered mild.

8. Kids with dogs may be less anxious — A 2015 study involving 643 children with a mean age of 6.7 years concluded that 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% of children with dogs suffered from probable anxiety compared to 21% of those without. The study found that dog ownership was associated with a 9% 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.

9. Being a dog parent increases your “social capital” — The results of a recent survey of 2,700 people in three major U.S. cities and Perth, Australia found that pet ownership is significantly associated with higher levels of social capital, defined as the relationships among people who live and work together that allow society to function effectively and realize productive benefits.

Dog owners who walked their dogs experienced the highest average social capital levels, being five times more likely to get to know others in their neighborhood than people with other types of pets.

10. Caring for a dog can teach children vital life lessons — Kids have much to offer their dogs, not the least of which is a built-in playtime and cuddle companion. But the rewards work both ways. Your child can learn much from owning a pet, including these valuable life lessons:

  • Responsibility — Pets require daily feeding, exercise and affection, not to mention grooming and potty time (and clean-up). Older children can learn how to care for another living creature and even younger children can help with feeding and playtime.
  • Compassion — Caring for a pet requires compassion, understanding and empathy. Kids learn to be kind and to take care of others’ basic needs.
  • Self-Esteem — Pets show unconditional love, which can be a great boost to a child’s self-esteem. So, too, can the satisfaction that comes from having responsibility and caring for a pet’s needs.
  • Patience — Bonding with a new pet often takes time. Your child will learn patience while your new pet becomes comfortable in your home and also during training.
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