Dogs and Your Health: Everything You Need to Know

Anyone who has ever owned a pet knows the feeling of looking forward to going home to your dog.

The contentment and happiness that comes from simply lazing on the sofa with your dog snuggled up near you, becomes a core part of our very concept of home.

And it’s not just the fact that you love your dog that fuels this feeling. There is veritable science behind the sense of well-being that dogs create. Not just for our emotional, but our physical health, too.

There are numerous studies and research papers backing up the link between having pets and improved all round quality of life.

A study conducted in 2017 following 3.4 million people in Sweden showed up to a 36% difference in occurrence and management of cardiovascular disease between people who owned dogs and people who didn’t.

Another fact it illustrated was the significant decrease in mortality among pet owners, as compared to people who did not own pets. So, is your dog’s love for you actually making you live longer? It absolutely is.

The Core Concept

Having dogs affects your life in a multitude of ways. To give an example from another perspective, if you’ve grown up with pets, you know precisely how hard it is to live without one.

The fact that it adds work and responsibility to your life becomes inconsequential, when compared to the bigger fact of owning a living being that shares your every moment and loves you more than itself, even when it cannot articulate it. But anyone who knows dogs knows, they are not dumb animals.

Adult dogs remain at the approximate mental age of a human two to three year old. There are naturally variations. Some dogs figure out how to switch on lights and open locks, others are a little silly at times.

But their intellectual development paces very visibly with the amount of attention and training they receive. And proportionately, so does our own mental well-being, as care-givers.

The Science of It All

Playing with dogs is associated directly with significantly lowered blood pressure, and lowered serum cholesterol and triglyceride levels. The effects are so pronounced that someone with borderline values could avoid their case developing further and go back to normal levels, simply from having a pet dog they love. And it’s not just love at play here.

Engaging with pets, whether it’s playing or simply cuddling, enhances release of the hormones Serotonin and Oxytocin. Serotonin is the so-called ‘Happiness hormone’. It works directly antagonistic to hormones like Cortisol which increase stress in the body, and there increase stress on the body.

A release of serotonin, such as cuddling or playing with your dog can release, causes the heart rate to lower and blood pressure to drop. The sense of relaxation you feel really extends all the way down your body’s physical parameters.

Over a longer period of time, these effects cumulatively work to control and reduce the effects of heart disease, as well as cause a shift in all the risk factors associated with heart disease.

The other hormone, Oxytocin, is colloquially also known as the Love hormone. Oxytocin is released in the body because of hugs and cuddles, and is responsible for the warm and fuzzy feeling you get around your dogs.

Dogs fulfil the basic need for companionship that is hardwired into us as humans. A sense of belonging, safety, comfort, and contentment stems from this bond, right from the molecular level up. Which brings us to the next major benefit of having dogs- mental health benefits.

Pooch Up, Cheer Up.

Having dogs is a massively useful tool for people battling mental health issues like depression and anxiety. Ongoing research keeps confirming the presence of dogs as an active counter to the onset and development of major depressive disorder.

Pets provide a calming and centering influence for people who are feeling unsettled and out of place, because they provide an active focus for the pet owner. The sense of unconditional love and care that we get from our pets is one of the most reassuring feelings that exist.

They provide a bedrock of warmth and undivided attention, and that helps reassure and comfort their owners more than friends or family can sometimes. Dogs inspire a sense of pure, unadulterated happiness, and that helps even the most preoccupied person take their mind of the cause of their stress for a few moments.

The effects are fully backed by studies confirming the positive effects of having dogs. Dogs are actively employed in therapy, from cognitive behavioural therapy, mood stabilisation, etc. to therapy for children.

People with disorders like PTSD show drastic improvements in their ability to handle the occurrence of traumatic flashbacks, aggressive episodes, and panic attacks, when they have a trained service dog or service animal to help them through it.

Attack Dogs (That Attack Aggression)

Oftentimes, dogs respond much more quickly and fully than people in the vicinity, because they sense the change in their owner’s mood right away. Dogs’ senses in ascertaining mood fluctuations are no new fact for pet owners, but with training, their knack for pinpointing people in emotional distress gets even more precise.

This is one of the reasons that war veterans and PTSD patients are being paired with dogs as part of their therapy, with noticeably better results in recovery.

Sugar, Sugar

Dogs who are trained to help the visually handicapped have been around for years. Similarly, dogs can also be trained to assist people through epileptic fits, spasms, detect episodes of hypo- and hyperglycemia, and alert and call for help in cases of emergency.

This capability is even more important for people who have type 1 Diabetes, where Insulin levels can wreck havoc on the blood sugar levels. Dogs have incredibly sensitive senses of smell.

It is thought that because of this super-sense, dogs who have been trained to recognize developing Ketosis can then alert their owners to dropping blood sugar levels, sometimes before the owner fully perceives it him or herself.

There have been reports where dogs have saved the lives of children with Type 1 Diabetes, where the child was asleep and slipping into Hypoglycemia, and the parents were unaware.

Need a Hand/Paw?

The effects are more manifold than simply the presence of a dog or cat. Having pets adds a structure and routine to your life that you perhaps would not enforce as rigidly otherwise.

Whether it’s having to get up early to take your dog out, making sure their water and food bowls are clean and filled, giving them baths and maintaining their grooming routine, or simply playing with them, all these activities foster the development of a sense of responsibility and awareness of their needs.

This is otherwise a major hurdle for people suffering from depression and anxiety, who are vulnerable to slipping under the lethargy and detachment these diseases cause.

Both Routine and Adventure

And not just in these cases. Dogs help bring a sense of discipline for children who struggle with authority and obedience as well. In fact, children benefit quite significantly from the presence of a pet they are responsible for.

A child who has to take care of a dog learns the importance of time, schedule, care and nurture, and learns to accept and handle responsibility – always with some adult supervision, of course.

It holds especially true for children who have autism or are on the spectrum. These children struggle with social interaction among their peers and with adults.

Depending on where they are on the spectrum, it’s not unusual for them to be very intelligent, but socially restricted by their tendency to recede from conversation and interaction.

This is one of the reasons why ASD animal-assisted therapy programs are gaining popularity with children on the spectrum. There are already many pets who are being used in therapy, like cats, horses, goats, ducks, but dogs remain a favourite, for obvious reasons.

Adults Get To Play, Too

The benefits are just as meaningful for adults as for children who are learning to have healthier social interactions. The stereotype of ‘men with dogs attract more women’ is a stereotype for a reason- it’s true. Not just in the romantic sense, too.

People with friendly dogs are automatically perceived as open and approachable. Activities with your dog such as a regular park routine or play session, will give you the opportunity to have more social interaction with fellow pet owners, as well as with people who simply want to interact with your pet.

Dogs are little happiness magnets and radiate that sense of contagious excitement to everyone in the vicinity. Having a dog puts you in the centre of this phenomenon, too. There are fewer active counters to loneliness and isolation than having a friend who wants to explore the entire sniffable world by your side.

The number of activities you can take your pet to is restricted only by the time and effort you can put in, whether it’s playing fetch in the park, or having a quick morning yoga session, canine company included.

Dogs make excellent companions for everything from a trip to the beach, to hiking, or fishing expeditions. It’s always better to ensure that you can handle them far away from home as well, of course.

All The Good Stuff

And these are still only the indirect physical effects of having dogs. There are also direct benefits, like increased physical activity. Having a dog necessitates you having a routine that involves regular walks, even if only around the block or to the nearest park.

The change in atmosphere is obviously good for us, but more significantly, the increased levels of exercise help in improving overall health and fitness levels, decreasing blood pressure, improving sugar uptake in muscles in patients with Type 2 Diabetes mellitus, decreasing stress, and improving cardiac health and function over a period of time.

A Little Dog-Time A Day Keeps the Doctor Away

It’s also been proved that children who grow up in homes with pets, develop a stronger immunity to allergens than children who grow up pet-free. Dogs can quite literally make your toddlers and children healthier.

The reason for this is linked to exposure to micro-organisms very early on. Infants and toddlers have immune systems that are still developing a resistance to what is around them. A child that is brought up in a very sterile environment therefore has a restricted immunity, because he has never developed a counter to so many pathogens he was not exposed to.

The presence of pets gives a controlled exposure to many such microbes. Naturally that does not mean than a dirty or muddy pet be allowed to track dirt and disease to a young child, but a modicum of exposure from a pet in the vicinity helps children develop an immune system that keeps them protected lifelong from minor allergic triggers and infections.

No Pain, Lots of Gain

Having pets can also quite literally improve your pain tolerance. Studies have shown that in people suffering from Fibromyalgia, a chronic pain disorder, 34% of patients confirmed that they felt better and more relaxed after a session with a therapy dog, when compared to 4% of the patients, who had only waited in a waiting room.

 And while even people who are in acute pain as the result of a surgery or recent trauma are positively affected by pets being present, the phenomenon holds an entirely different depth for people with chronic pain issues, who have to live with this condition.

Complex Regional Pain Syndrome, for example, is nowadays often treated with assistance from therapy dogs. They are also invaluable in the management of Ehler-Danlos syndrome, a genetic connective tissue disorder which leaves the sufferer with muscle laxity and difficulty in mobilisation.

Depending on the level of training a dog has received (whether only for emotional support, therapy, or full service), dogs can be taught to calling for help in a crisis situation, notifying their owner to take their medication on time, bringing items to the owner, providing stability as the human partner sits, stands, or while mobilizing, opening doors, etc.

 Dogs are trained to be constant companions to persons suffering from conditions like these, and to provide assistance and support both physically, as well as emotionally. Studies have shown that even 15-30 minutes of meaningful interaction with a pet can cause noticeably reduced fatigue, intensity of pain, and emotional distress.

Therapy dogs also reduce the heart rate, blood pressure and breathing rate, decrease the release of the stress hormone cortisol, which spikes in people with chronic pain, and enhance endorphins levels, which are the body’s natural painkillers.

For Latter Day Pet Owners, Too

While children very obviously benefit from dogs, there are a host of advantages for older pet owners as well. People above the age of 65 who have dogs, are at significantly decreased risk of mortality from heart disease, as people who are pet-free. While a large part of this is attributed to the overall changes having a dog has on our lives, there are many smaller benefits, too.

Having a dog in advanced age adds a sense of purpose and commitment that often escapes adults in their latter years. Empty nest syndrome becomes progressively more stressful, and being able to fill that time with a pet and related activities is hugely beneficial.

 It adds substance to an often-wide open daily routine, without adding any stress. Additionally, adults’ profit from the sense of companionship and togetherness pets provide, and none more so than cats and dogs.

In patients with Alzheimer’s disease or progressive dementia, for example, having a dog can be an invaluable support system for their daily activities.

Often, it’s a win-win system, when adult dogs are paired with older owners. Older dogs have a wise and sedate pace that older people have no trouble keeping up with. In return, older dogs sensibilize themselves to their owners’ habits quicker than puppies, who have the attention of a butterfly in an orchard because the entire world is a wonder to them.

Although that may actually be a benefit, too. Studies have shown that dog owners who can handle active dogs without much exertion, stand to gain from having a pet that draws them out from staying inside their own thoughts for too long.

Puppies are almost infectious in their enthusiasm, and even being in their vicinity is good for people in danger of thinking too much for too long.

More Love, More Happiness

Naturally, all pets can be beneficial, but dogs and cats provide a source of demonstrable and tangible love.

They are open and undemanding, and even the most spoilt of them all will not blink before literally risking themselves for their owner. They are often a part of our lives but for them, we are their entire lives.

It’s a relationship that only blossoms, and benefits both the pet as well as the owner. Such wholesome love, of course, will only ever make you happier.

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