Can dogs improve our health?

DEAR DOCTOR K:

I’m on the fence about getting a dog. My wife claims that pets — particularly dogs — can improve our health. Is that true?

DEAR READER:

When I was growing up, there was always a dog in the family. And I mean “in the family”: They were a part of the family, often coming with us when we went on errands. Some of my friends never had a pet, so I once asked my mother why we always had a dog. She replied: “Dogs are good for us.”

I remembered that answer when I got your question. But I wasn’t sure of the “scientific” answer to your question, so I did some homework. When I looked into the evidence, I found that there are many studies that indicate having a dog is linked to health in several ways. Here’s what I learned:

  • PHYSICAL ACTIVITY. Regular exercise is the closest thing that exists to an all-purpose tonic for good health. Enter the dog. Dogs are perfect exercise buddies. Whether we like it or not, they will encourage us to go for a walk, be it raining, snowing, sleeting or hailing outside.
  • REDUCED ASTHMA AND ALLERGIES IN KIDS. Most allergists now say children who are exposed to a dog from infancy onward are less likely to develop problems. That appears to be true even in allergy-prone kids.
  • CARDIOVASCULAR BENEFITS. A growing body of evidence is showing multiple benefits for heart health. In 2013, the American Heart Association (AHA) issued a statement concluding that pet ownership is probably associated with a decreased risk of cardiovascular disease. How could that be? Consider the next two benefits:

1. BLOOD PRESSURE. In multiple studies, dog owners have been shown to have lower blood pressure than non-owners. That’s probably due to a combination of increased exercise and the calming effects that pets have on their owners.

2. PSYCHOLOGICAL BENEFITS. Dog ownership helps prevent loneliness, anxiety and depression. Each of these is, in turn, a risk factor for heart disease. Many people report feeling less fear and anxiety when they pet a dog. Dog ownership leads to less release of the stress hormone cortisol, which in turn lowers stress-related increases in heart rate and blood pressure.

Why all these benefits? I think it’s because (most) dogs love us without reservation. There’s a prayer that makes this point: “Lord, help me to become the person my dog thinks I am.”

Dogs also seek our love, and that, too, has its benefits. Dogs add structure and routine to the day. And the presence of an animal that requires care can turn a sick person’s focus outward and away from his or her symptoms and worries.

As you can see, dogs have much to offer us. But think carefully before you make the decision to adopt a dog. Pets have social, emotional and physical needs. Make sure you will have the time and energy to attend to them. We have recently published a report about the health benefits of owning a dog, which you can find out about at  www.health.harvard.edu/DOG.