by Eimear Morrissey
My family got a puppy a few weeks ago. Her name is Daisy and she’s a little Jack Russell. When she arrived she was no bigger or heavier than a butter tub. There was no way that any of us could have anticipated the impact that such a tiny creature was going to have on our lives. Suddenly we were all running around and playing with her, inviting friends and family over to see her, laughing at her antics and generally spending more time together while she snuggled on various laps. As I study psychology and health all day, every day in college, it wasn’t long before I began to wonder about the health benefits of having this new companion in our lives. I could already see that we were becoming more physically active and I was definitely finding playing with her to be stress relieving. I took to the literature to investigate further and it turns out that there is substantial evidence to suggest that dog ownership is extremely beneficial to both physical and mental health.
We all know that exercise is great for health. Regular exercise controls weight, combats health conditions and diseases such as hypertension and diabetes, improves mood and promotes better sleep. Spending time outdoors leads to increased Vitamin D and better sleep patterns. Having a dog means that you have to take a walk or play a game outside daily. A study by Brown and Rhodes (2006) found that adult dog owners were more likely to do mild to moderate physical activity during the week than non-dog owners. These owners walked an average of 300 minutes per week compared to their counterpoints average of 168 minutes per week. This applies to children too, as Owen et al. (2010) found that children with dogs spent more time doing moderate to vigorous physical activity than children without dogs.
There is an abundance of research to show that involvement in social relationships benefits health. The most striking evidence comes from prospective studies of mortality across industrialized nations. These studies consistently show that individuals with the lowest level of involvement in social relationships are more likely to die than those with greater involvement (House, Landis & Umberson, 1988). Similarly, several review articles provide consistent and compelling evidence linking a low quantity or quality of social ties with a host of conditions, including development and progression of cardiovascular disease, recurrent myocardial infarction, atherosclerosis, autonomic dysregulation, hypertension, cancer and delayed cancer recovery, and slower wound healing (Ertel, Glymour & Berkman, 2009; Everson-Rose & Lewis 2005; Robles and Kiecolt-Glaser 2003). If such low quality or quantity of social ties is a problem for an individual, a dog can help improve this as they have been shown to exert a socialising effect. A study by Messent (1984) found that individuals walking through a park were more likely to receive social acknowledgement from strangers when they were walking dog than when they were walking alone. Similar research by Eddy, Hart & Boltz (1988) showed that adults who used wheelchairs attracted more social greetings from passer-by’s if they were accompanied by a service dog than if not accompanied. Having a dog is a great advantage when socialising as you can meet new people in places like the vets, groomers or dog training classes, and dogs are an instant source of conversation when meeting strangers.
Social capital is often divided into ‘bridging’ and ‘bonding’ forms (Putnam, 2000). As demonstrated above, dogs are a form of bridging social capital as they can provide links or bonds to other potential friends. Furthermore, they are also a great form of bonding social capital as they bond closely with their owners. This can act as a protector against loneliness, a condition which can be extremely damaging to health. Chronic loneliness is linked with higher levels of the stress hormone cortisol in the morning, which raises the risk of heart attacks and strokes. Loneliness is also linked with higher blood pressure and a weakening of the immune system (Patrick &
Cacioppo, 2008) Wood et al. (2005) conducted a study on 339 survey respondents in Australia to test the relationship between pet ownership and loneliness. After age adjustment, “significantly fewer pet owners reported being lonely compared with non-pet owners, with 70.5% of pet owners indicating that they rarely or never felt lonely, compared with 58.3% of non-pet owners”. A study by Banks (2006) found that quiet time with a dog (a Welsh Corgi named Sparky) made nursing home residents feel less lonely, more so even than visit with both a dog and other residents. They enrolled 37 nursing home residents with high scores on a loneliness scale who were interested in receiving weekly half-hour visits from dogs. Half of the study subjects had dog-only visits. The other half shared the dog with other nursing home residents. Both groups said they felt less lonely after the canine visit, but the decrease in loneliness was significantly larger among those who had the dogs all to themselves.
In 2013, the American Heart Association (AHA) issued a scientific statement based on its review of data about people and their pets (including many studies of dog owners). It concluded that pet ownership is probably associated with a decreased risk of cardiovascular disease. While the AHA did not confirm a clear cause and effect, it did say that pet ownership can be a reasonable part of an overall strategy to lower the risk of heart disease. Dog ownership can play a beneficial role in the following areas –
In a study of 240 married couples with or without pets, both systolic and diastolic blood pressures were significantly (p<0.01) lower in participants with a pet (dog or cat) than those without a pet (Allan, Blascovich & Mendes, 2002)
- Cholesterol levels
In a study of 5741 participants attending a free screening clinic, male (but not female) dog owners had significantly but clinically modestly lower total cholesterol (201 versus 206 mg/dL; P=0.02) and triglyceride (108 versus 125 mg/dL; P=0.01) levels than non-owners of dogs (Anderson, Reid & Jennings, 1992)
- Cardiovascular reactivity
Cardiovascular reactivity to stress (i.e. mental arithmetic and cold pressor) was assessed in 240 couples, half of whom owned a cat or dog. People with pets had significantly lower resting baseline heart rates and blood pressure, significantly smaller increases in heart rate and blood pressure in response to stress, and faster recovery of these parameters to baseline after cessation of stress. Reactivity to stress was lowest and recovery fastest in couples tested when their pet was present (Allen, Blascovich & Mendes, 2002)
- Survival in cardiovascular disease
In a sub study of the Cardiac Arrhythmia Suppression Trial (CAST), 1-year survival data were assessed in 369 study participants on the basis of whether or not the participant owned a pet. Overall, pet ownership of any kind tended to be independently associated with survival (p=0.085). Dog ownership was strongly associated with decreased mortality, with the likelihood of mortality being 4.05 times greater for dog non-owners than for dog owners (p < 0.05) the benefit of dog ownership on survival was independent of physiological measures or the severity of CVD. Cat ownership was not found to be associated with decreased mortality or cardiac-related rehospitalisation (Friedman & Thomas, 1995).
I could keep writing on this topic for pages more but it can be easily summarised in the graph from Headey, Na and Zheng (2007) below. Owning a dog can improve health through various mechanisms, some of which are interlinked. Their end points of “fewer days off sick from work” and “fewer doctor visits” are interesting and suggest a possible economic benefit to dog ownership.
And so it turns out that Daisy entering our lives is likely to lead to many health benefits. It certainly doesn’t feel like that when she runs between my legs and nearly trips me and my stress levels probably do go up when I realise that she’s after peeing on the kitchen floor AGAIN but she is also the cause of us exercising, laughing and bonding more. We’ve only had her a few weeks and already it is difficult to imagine our lives without this hyper furry cuddly ball of energy. The health benefits are just a bonus.