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Have you ever had a completely exhausting day of work? You know, one of those days where you felt like crying on your drive home. You get to your front door just wanting to collapse on the couch when someone with big, sweet eyes and a wagging tail welcomes you home with energetic jumps and a slobbery smile. You return the love by giving him a hug and belly rub. And just like that, your day just got better all thanks to your dog.  If you have a dog then you can relate to these lively greetings. But what if you can’t? Or what if you’re more of a cat person? No worries at all! Owning a dog – or any pet for that matter – has many surprising health benefits. Whether you’re looking for a guide dog, needing a companion, or want to improve your health in an unexpectedly furry way – here are five benefits of owning a dog that can be applied to other pets too.

1. Dogs can provide companionship, improve mental health, and ease loneliness, anxiety, and depression.

You’ve probably felt isolated, stressed, and alone during this COVID-19 pandemic. And you’re not alone.  Anxiety and depression have soared among adults in the U.S. A dog can provide you the companionship we all need so you don’t feel so alone. Dogs are also shown to help patients who are undergoing surgery or treatments for chronic illnesses. These experiences can be isolating, so having a dog around may be beneficial.

2. Dogs can lower blood pressure and improve heart health.

One scientific study tested whether the presence of a dog could lower the blood pressure of people in a stressful situation. Researchers found that when a dog was in a room, people who needed to complete a stressful task like speech writing had lower blood pressure. In another study, a group of elderly people had weekly visits from a dog and another group didn’t have these visits. Scientists found that the group of elderly people who had visits from a dog had lower blood pressure than the other group. Pretty cool how dogs may help to lower blood pressure, huh? Dogs can also improve heart health by encouraging their owners to move regularly since dogs need to be walked. On average, dog owners walk at least 150 minutes per week. And all that walking can make your heart stronger by reducing cholesterol, triglyceride levels, and your risk for heart attacks. And even if a dog owner does have a heart attack, they’re more likely to survive it than those without a four-legged friend. So next time you’re comfy on the couch when your dog whines to go outside – instead of rolling your eyes, maybe just say thanks.

3. Dogs can help you lose weight and meet your physical activity goals.

In a competition with your brother to see who’s crowned the Step Count King or Queen? A dog just might be your secret weapon. Dogs can help since they need to be walked multiple times a week. In fact, the step count of dog owners was 57-77% higher than non-dog owners in a specific community study. Dog owners are also four times more likely than non-dog owners to meet their physical activity guidelines. This is important to note because about 75% of adults in the United States aren’t getting their weekly amount of recommended exercise. If you want to experience the benefits of exercise including stress relief, improved brain function, increased mental health, and better discipline, a dog can help!

4. Dogs can support those in need.

A canine companion can be an invaluable support if you have a disability or illness. Dogs – specifically guide, service, or assistance dogs – are trained to help their owners with disabilities such as those who are visually impaired, hearing impaired, have a seizure disorder, have severe insulin dependent diabetes, have severe allergic reactions, undergoing cancer treatment, and mental health conditions such as anxiety, depression and PTSD for example. A more well-known example of this is guide dogs, who can provide confidence for those who are visually impaired or blind by guiding them through public places. Other dogs can also assist humans suffering from severe health conditions or allergy attacks. These dogs are specifically trained to get supplies or perform procedures for a human. Dogs can also help children with disabilities. A study looked at children with cerebral palsy (a group of disorders that affect a child’s ability to move) and physical and mental disabilities. These children were experiencing anxiety and having a hard time getting through daily life due to their disabilities. A therapy dog helped the children:
  • Cope and work through their anxiety and fear
  • Improve their ability to move and use their body
  • Develop empathy through communication between themselves and the dog
Lastly, dogs are shown to provide benefits to youth and adults with cancer. For a therapy dog study in youth patients with cancer, scientists found that the youth had a decrease in negative emotions like fear and sadness after a visit with a dog. Some worry that dogs may transmit a zoonotic disease to cancer patients and those with weak immune systems. The studies that are available regarding this matter are outdated, and more research is needed in terms of safe dog and pet handling for cancer patients. Overall, scientists have found that the benefits of dogs and pets for cancer patients outweigh the risks. If you have concerns, talk with your doctor to see what’s best for your situation. Keep in mind: For patients with allergies, infections, or a fear of dogs, it would be best to not have a therapy dog visit them. Our furry friends are extremely smart animals that can provide relief for individuals and their families. Just another way our pups promote our health.

5. Dogs can help prevent cognitive decline.

There’s been an increase in patients with Alzheimer’s disease and dementia in the U.S. One way to combat this is by improving memory and overall brain health, especially in elderly patients. In fact, animal therapy for those with dementia helped reduce agitated behavior and increased social behavior – just by having a dog present. Dogs are also shown to increase social behaviors such as smiling and laughing in Alzheimer’s patients. And for those with mild cognitive impairment (MCI), physical activity may have positive effects on cognition. This means exercise and physical activity could help someone stay attentive or help them recall information faster. So, a dog can definitely provide a way to get physical exercise while improving cognitive decline.

Why You Should Own a Dog

Who knew a furry friend could provide joy AND such positive health benefits? And these aren’t even all the benefits! There’s one thing to keep in mind: If you have allergies to animals or a critical illness, be sure to consult your doctor before making a trip to the humane society or local dog shelter. There may also be a specific breed of a dog that would be the best fit for you and your family. So, it’s worth doing your research before adopting a new best friend and fitness pal. But as you can see – it could be just the thing you need to boost your mental and physical health. Do you own a dog or pets? How do they help you? Share with me in the comments! I’d love to see a picture of your loyal, four-legged companion! Post a picture with you and your pet and be sure to tag me on Instagram: @dremilyparke.
Dr. Emily Parke

Dr. Emily Parke

Dr. Emily Parke, D.O., is a certified functional medicine doctor, board-certified in anesthesiology & pediatric anesthesiology, and trained in medical acupuncture. She’s an experienced speaker in the medical and functional medicine community, and presently gives talks on a wide array of subjects.