The Surprising Health Benefits of Canine Companionship
Dogs and humans have lived together for over 30,000 years. That’s a lot of milk bones under the bridge…. In addition to the usual assortment of theories explaining why we’ve kept our pups around for so long (hunting, protection, extending our natural senses, warmth, friendship, very cute faces), there is a growing body of scientific research that strongly suggests that having a dog isn’t just fun, but a healthy addition to our lives.
They are cuter than pills and cuddlier than shots. Here are a number of the reasons why having a dog is good for you… To your Health!
Take a Hike!
Doctors and Health Scientists recommend that we get at least 30 minutes of moderate exercise every day. Our modern daily life can make this difficult for a lot of people. In a society where there is always another email to answer, another facebook comment to respond to, another series to binge watch on Netflix, having a dog can be a wonderful reason to get up off your duff, turn off your screen, and get outside. Rover doesn’t care if you’re behind in your business, he needs to go out and do some of his own!
Even just a casual stroll can be beneficial to your health, increasing circulation and boosting oxygen levels in your blood and to your brain. Owning a dog helps motivate us to get out there and do it, whether we feel like it or not, if the weather is nice or not. It is this sort of regular activity that can easily turn into a habit, keeping you fit for the rest of your life.
Your furry little personal trainer can help keep your heart healthy as well. Some research has shown that dog owners have lower cholesterol and triglyceride levels that could not be attributed to diet or lifestyle differences. And people who survive heart attacks tend to live longer if they own a dog. Stress relief is a very important part of a healthy lifestyle, and having a dog to pet, walk, or talk to when you’re down is a real benefit.
Feel the Love!
Speaking of stress, another health benefit comes from the emotional/hormonal systems in your body. When you pet, hang out with, or even just look at your dog, a variety of feel good chemicals are released in your body including serotonin (emotional regulation) and oxytocin (interpersonal connection). Meanwhile stress hormones like cortisol are lowered. This change in body and brain chemistry can happen in just 15 minutes and lead to feelings of relaxation, mood elevation, and even pain relief. We all know how good it feels to cuddle up with our animals after a stressful day, but now science is showing the deep biological mechanisms that cause such wonderful feelings.
Dogs also make us more social among other humans. Taking young Rex on a stroll through town causes us to have a conversation with other animal lovers who want to stop, pet, and chat. Taking behavior classes with our animals gets us to meet people with similar interests. I’ve even heard of good folks using the charms of their pets to attract a mate. Many of these social interactions may have been lost if not for our dogs.
People have taken this concept to the next level by using their dogs as “Therapy Dogs” to visit with people in hospitals and nursing homes. Whether you are sick, depressed, or lonely, a visit from a happy wagging tail can often be an excellent adjunct to improve your medical prognosis.
According to some studies, children raised in households with dogs had a lower likelihood of developing asthma, allergies, eczema, and other autoimmune disorders. Why is this? Well, much like vaccination, it seems like early exposure to dog allergens can help children develop well regulated immune systems, helping to keep them clear of many diseases in which the body is essentially attacking itself.
You can check this fascinating study here (http://www.jpeds.com/article/S0022-3476(10)00604-9/abstract), but listen folks, while having a dog lowered the rates of autoimmune disease, having a cat raised them! I always knew those cats were up to no good!
Your Microbes and You
It is much in vogue to discuss the health of our Microbiome these days. Your microbiome is the name given to the vast community of bacteria, fungi, and viruses that live on or in your body. These microbes vastly outnumber our human cells (we’re talking trillions here), and play an important role in our health and possibly even our emotional states. Much is still being learned about this invisible population that lives with us, but one thing we know is that our modern focus on cleanliness and sterilization (think: too much Purell) combined with our modern diet of processed, low fiber foods (think: too many Cheetos) has greatly diminished the diversity of our microbiomes.
Release the hounds! Studies have shown that pet owners share a significant portion of their microbial population with their pets. When Percy sits in your lap and you pet him – you share some microbes. When Percy goes over to your friend and they pet him – you share some microbes with your friend. When Percy rolls in some stink in the woods – you get some of those too. This sounds weird, but it is a very good thing!
We are beginning to see a strong correlation between overall health and maintaining a vigorous and diverse microbiome. So let your dog get dirty and lick your face, it’s good for you!
There is another great reason why having dogs is healthy for your emotional well-being. Owning pets forces you to care for another creature. This shift in approach from a self-centered mindset to one in which you are of service to others is a huge cause of happiness and well-being for humans. We are social creatures who develop very real benefits from helping others. We all need to be needed!
Owning dogs develops our empathy, compassion, sensitivity to others, and patience. How many times have cleaned up a big mess your dog made. You may have been cursing at the time, but, congratulations, you are a better person for it!
Next time you are giving your pooch a hard time for being a no-good, lazy, moochin’ couch potato, remember all the benefits she is giving you while you weren’t looking. From exercise to companionship, from forcing you to have a social life to replenishing the healthy germs in your body, from lowering your stress levels to making you think of someone other than your own self for once in your damn life… Having a canine companion is just doggone good for you. They can help us make our good lives GREAT!