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10 Health Benefits of Dogs (and One Health Risk)

Hanging out with four-legged friends can do wonders for your well-being


By Kristen Sturt

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Corgi dog

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Whether you're a dog owner or volunteer with dogs, studies have shown that when it comes to you and your health, your furry friends can actually be helpful to your well-being. Click through the slides to see the many ways a dog can be  beneficial to your life.

(This article appeared previously on Grandparents.com)

Dogs

1. A Dog Can Improve Your Heart Health

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Dogs don’t just fill your heart; they actually make it stronger. Studies show that having a canine companion is linked to lower blood pressure, reduced cholesterol and decreased triglyceride levels, which contribute to better overall cardiovascular health and fewer heart attacks. What’s more, dog owners who do have heart attacks have better survival rates following the events.

2. A Dog Can Keep You Fit and Active

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Health experts recommend that adults get about 2 hours and 30 minutes worth of moderate exercise per week. Dog owners are way more likely to hit that goal. "People love to be outside to walk their dog, and be with their dog," says Kay Joubert, director companion animal services at PAWS, a Washington-based animal advocacy organization. "It helps them be more active."

In turn, that activity helps us remain mobile into our 70s and 80s. Earlier this year, a study in the journal Gerontologist found that older adults who walked dogs experienced "lower body mass index, fewer activities of daily living limitations, fewer doctor visits and more frequent moderate and vigorous exercise."

Plus, an added bonus (on the next slide)...

3. A Dog Can Help You Lose Weight

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Want to drop a few pounds? Grab Fido and get hoofing. Research has repeatedly found that daily dog walks help you lose weight, since they force you into moderate physical activity for 10, 20 and even 30 minutes at a time. In fact, in 2010, one small study discovered that public housing residents who walked "loaner" dogs five times a week lost an average of 14.4 pounds over the course of a year. The best part: Participants considered it a responsibility to the dog, rather than exercise. ("They need us to walk them.")

4. A Dog Can Improve Your Social Life

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As we age, it becomes harder to get out and meet people. Not so for dog owners. Researchers have found that about 40 percent of them make friends more easily, possibly because the vast majority — four in five, according to one British study — speak with other dog owners during walks.

"Dog owners in particular tend to be a little more extroverted, or outgoing" says Joubert. "When you start to engage them about their companion animal, people tend to open up and really blossom. They want to share stories about their favorite friend."

5. A Dog Can Reduce Stress

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There’s a reason therapy dogs are so effective: Spending just a few minutes with a pet can lower anxiety and blood pressure and increase levels of serotonin and dopamine, two neurochemicals that play big roles in calm and well-being. People performing stressful tasks do better when there’s a dog around, too, and studies show dogs ease tension both at the office and for married couples.

6. A Dog Can Add Meaning and Purpose

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As we grow older — especially after we retire — it can be difficult to find structure and meaning day in and day out. Dogs take care of that. "They force people to continue to do things," says Kristi Littrell, adoption manager at Best Friends Animal Society in Utah. "So, even if you’re not feeling well emotionally or physically, the dog doesn’t care. I mean, they care, but they still want you to feed them and take them for a walk."

Dogs help prevent loneliness and isolation, as well, which is key in staving off cognitive decline and disease. "It helps us to not just focus on our needs," says Joubert. "It gives us a reason to really get up in the morning. 'I need to get up and take care of my friend here.'"

7. A Dog Can Stave Off Depression

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It’s widely believed that dog owners are less prone to depression than the dog-less, largely because they seem to help in so many other areas of health and well-being. The truth is somewhat more complicated. Though there’s evidence that certain dog owners — including isolated elderly women and HIV-positive men — suffer less from depression than those without pets, there’s also proof that dogs don’t do much for other demographics.

That said, therapy dogs — animals that do not stay in your home — have been shown to be effective in easing depression for a variety of people, old and young, sick and healthy.

8. A Dog Can Prevent Grandkids’ Allergies

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Back in the '90s, experts believed having a dog in your home contributed to children’s allergies. Fortunately, recent research shows just the opposite is true: Dogs and cats actually lower a child’s chance of becoming allergic to pets — up to 33 percent, according to a 2004 study in the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology. As a side bonus, young 'uns might even develop stronger immune systems.

9. A Dog Can Reduce Doctor Visits

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If you’re over 65 and own a pet, odds are you seek medical help about 30 percent less often than people who don't have a pet. To wit: A study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology established that animal-owning seniors on Medicare "reported fewer doctor contacts over the one-year period than respondents who did not own pets." And while cats, birds and other animals were helpful, "Owners of dogs, in particular, were buffered from the impact of stressful life events on physician utilization."

10. A Dog Can Battle Disease and Injury

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It’s believed that owning a dog can help detect, treat and manage a variety of illnesses and debilitations. A few examples:

  • Some dogs have been trained to sniff out skin, kidney, bladder and prostate cancer, among others.
  • Service dogs are known to benefit people with everything from traumatic brain injury to autism to rheumatoid arthritis, increasing mobility and promoting independence.
  • Alzheimer’s patients are soothed by dogs, whose companionship also seems to mitigate emotional flare-ups and aggression.

When Dogs Are Not So Great

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According to the Centers for Disease Control, just over 86,000 falls per year are caused by pets — 88 percent by dogs. Falls can be cataclysmic health events for people who are older, frequently leading to serious injury (broken hips, etc.) and long hospital stays. If you’re looking to adopt, consider mobility issues, and make sure to take steps to reduce the dangers of falls.

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