How A Canine Companion Boosts Mental and Physical Health
When Dolly answered the front door, she looked into the downcast countenance of the mother of one of her piano students. The distraught friend, her despondency exacerbated by insomnia, didn’t want to be alone in her own home. She craved a safe place to crash and thought of Dolly. “Can I just lie down on your couch?” she pleaded. “I think I’ll rest better here.”
Of course, Dolly complied. Yet the unannounced visitor also received solace from a second, unexpected source: our young dachshund, Farley.
Farley epitomizes the meaning of the label, “alpha male.” He wasn’t (and isn’t) known for a hospitable attitude toward anyone outside of our family. Extremely territorial and fiercely protective of Dolly, his mom, he normally greets guests with a vociferous protest, eventually calming down when he realizes we know them. He rarely wags his tail at strangers or invites them to pet him.
But that day, when she entered the house, he didn’t act belligerently toward the piano mom. He kept staring at her with a laser-beam focus, apparently sensing that something was wrong with her mood. As soon as she stretched out on the sofa, Dolly was flabbergasted when Farley jumped up and snuggled beside her sad friend. In the 11 years since that day, Farley hasn’t demonstrated such compassion toward anyone he didn’t know well. His gift of physical presence, bodily warmth, and touch helped to soothe her spirit.
As I researched the effect of a dog on a person’s mental and physical health, Farley’s calming effect on Dolly’s friend kept coming to mind. Oh, I had already read material citing the benefits of pet ownership, and I had experiential knowledge of those blessings after almost 13 years with Farley. Yet what I discovered exceeded my expectations.
In 2017, Scientific Reports divulged a study originating at Uppsala University in Sweden. Researchers tracked the health records of 3.4 million adults (40-80 years old) over a 12-year period. In Sweden, registration of a dog is mandatory and every person’s visit to a hospital enters a national database. They found that dog owners had a lower risk of death from cardiovascular disease than people who didn’t own a dog. Dog owners also had a lower risk of death from all other causes, even after adjusting for factors such as smoking, obesity, and socioeconomic status.
The target group in Sweden that benefited most from dog ownership consisted of those who lived alone. Those folks had a 33% reduced risk of death overall, and an 11% reduced risk of cardiovascular disease than people who lived alone without a dog. Researchers did not design this study to show a cause-and-effect relationship between longevity and dog ownership, yet a strong correlation was unmistakable. The sample size was hundreds of times larger than other studies on the topic.
In 2019, the journal of the American Heart Association, Circulation, reviewed 70 years of research on dog ownership, citing the most significant findings from all the data. They found that dog ownership lowers our risk of dying from any cause by 24%. For people who have already had a stroke or heart attack, when they get a dog, their risk drops by 31%.
Farley, who proofread this blog for me, insists that due to my poor personal and family health history, he’s the reason I’ve made it to 70. I think he’s finagling for an extra treat today.
The following benefits of dog ownership help explain the longevity.
You don’t see many people in your neighborhood walking their cats or pet rabbits, but you’ll spot lots of dog-walkers. Even folks without a proclivity for exercise are forced into walking by their dog’s incessant pleas to get out and about. A study funded by the National Institute of Health looked at 2,000 adults. Their finding seems rather obvious, but dog-walkers were much less likely to be obese than non-dog walkers. In a separate study of adults 71-82 years old, all of whom walked for exercise, those who walked with a dog walked faster and longer than those who didn’t have a canine companion. Those senior pooch-walkers also reported greater mobility when moving around in their house.
During almost 13 years with Farley, using a conservative estimate, I have walked over 3,000 miles with him. I still struggle with weight, but if not for Farley, I’d be a lot heavier. The 3,000 miles excludes all the times Dolly has walked him without me. Just my treks with him are the equivalent of a coast to coast walk across America!
When he proofread this section of the blog, Farley’s face drooped. He trudged up the ramp and plopped down on the couch for a nap. Before dozing off, he said that just thinking about all that walking exhausted him and he’s taking a day off. “And you’re on your own getting back from California!” he muttered.
Walking isn’t the only way a dog benefits the human heart. Just a brief period of play with a dog has been shown to elevate two chemicals that engender positive feelings: oxytocin and dopamine. Contact with dogs counteracts stress responses to the frenetic pace of modern life by lowering heart rate and decreasing the release of stress hormones. One study revealed that college students who petted a dog for 10 minutes before final exams entered the classroom with a calmer mindset. The petting lowered their levels of cortisol, a stress hormone. And on average, dog owners have lower blood pressure.
Farley showed dogged determination in pressuring me to omit the next tidbit of information, but I must show objectivity in my report. Feline affection confers a similar effect on the heart. According to a 10-year study summarized in the Archives of Internal Medicine, cat owners were 40% less likely to suffer a heart attack and 30% less likely to die of other cardiovascular diseases.
“Maybe so,” snarls Farley, “but when have you seen a cat put a dent in the wall with his tail because he’s so happy to see you enter the house? Huh…when?” Farley insists that most cats are so conceited that “They don’t come to you. They wait for you to come to them.”
Google “dogs and depression” and you’ll find scores of research articles as well as testimonials about the positive effect of pets, and dogs in particular, on our mood. In a summary of research in the archives of WebMD, “Seventy-four percent of pet owners report that their pets improved their mental health.” Several factors account for this enhancement of mood.
*Physical Touch The desired outcome of many antidepressant medicines is an increase in two mood-enhancing chemicals in the brain: serotonin and dopamine. Physical touch with beloved pets often boosts these same chemicals. The companionship, unconditional love, and bonding offered by an animal comfort and calm our spirits. As previously reported, stroking a pet floods our system with the feel-good chemical oxytocin, and lowers the stress hormone cortisol. And many dogs pick up on a person’s anxious or depressed mood, initiating physical touch (as seen in Farley’s reaction to Dolly’s friend).
These physiological and emotional effects are particularly striking with special needs persons such as soldiers returning from battle with PTSD. Studies reveal that therapy dogs, whether full-time companions or just frequent visitors, have prevented the onset of or tamped down the severity of PTSD episodes. When they maintain regular contact with a canine companion, soldiers report fewer traumatic flashbacks, less emotional numbness, and fewer angry outbursts.
*Social Connection with Other People Depressed persons who’d rather stay in bed or not leave the house are more likely to go outside and walk if they own a dog. And the two things that most often spur conversations between strangers while walking are babies and dogs. The human interaction increases the despondent person’s sense of well-being and forces him or her out of a relational shell.
According to studies, a person with a dog is perceived to be more approachable and trusting, thus making the other person on the street or in the park more likely to initiate a conversation. And if you’re single, a pooch-walker is also viewed as more date-worthy! In fact, a lady is more likely to give her phone number to a stranger when he is with his canine buddy. Satisfying marriages have resulted from two dog-walkers striking up a conversation about their four-legged friends.
(If this happens to you because you took this post to heart and got a dog, please send me a finder’s fee.)
*Structure and Routine Though a depressive episode can envelop me on any given day or time of day, I am more susceptible to despondency during the weekend, or on a day when I don’t have the typical tasks to occupy my mind and my time. It’s as if the lack of structure and responsibility causes feelings of hopelessness and despair, which are always lurking just beneath my consciousness, to surface.
Researchers indicate that the simple routine and daily responsibilities required by a pet help with mood disorders. The dog needs to be walked. The cat must be fed and the litter box cleaned. Pet ownership requires visits to the pet store and to the vet. Pet owners prone to depression report a greater sense of purpose now that they are responsible for another living creature. They not only feel loved, they feel needed.
I’m not suggesting that owning a dog (or cat) is a panacea for poor mental or physical health. Pets aren’t a cure, but they’re definitely a help.
*Return your pet’s affection. He or she needs loving, too. Don’t take your companion for granted. Our son Stephen’s dachshund, Wendall, seemed relatively normal when we took him in for his 6-month checkup in early February this year. After the vet performed a biopsy on a swollen lymph node, two days later the lab diagnosed his cancer. We said goodbye to Wendall on April 13. You can bet that we held and hugged him more often during those last 10 weeks.*
*Get over your anxiety about owning a dog and take the leap. If I had known how much Farley would “love on” me and how often he’d make me laugh, I’d have owned a pet long before I turned 57. For over a year I kept saying that I’d get a dachshund, inspired by one owned by my brother-in-law. My inaction prompted Stephen to take the initiative. He found a nearby dachshund kennel online, then picked out and named 7-week old Farley, naming him after the late comedian. In effect, that one act by Stephen paid me back for all the money I spent raising him (though I never felt Stephen owed me anything).
*A compassionate approach to dog ownership is to check with local rescue shelters or adoption centers. You rescue a dog who needs a home and he or she more than returns the favor. It’s rare for such a shelter to have a full-bred, healthy young dachshund, but that’s how Stephen found Wendall almost seven years ago. Soon, he plans to rescue another dog from possible euthanasia rather than acquire a puppy. It will be Stephen’s way of honoring Wendall, and giving back to another dog for all he received from his little companion.
*If you know someone who lives alone, especially if the person is prone to despondency, ask if you can purchase a dog for him or her. Do this is you think the person will accept responsibility for the dog’s care and if he or she has the financial means for the necessary care. If you don’t ask, you already have your answer.
Yes, a pet takes a big bite out of your financial budget. (I couldn’t resist the pun.) Our Wellness Plan for Farley at Banfield (a vet clinic usually found inside PetSmart stores) now costs $40 each month. This isn’t the same as pet insurance, which we’ve never had. Recently, lab work to determine the cause of elevated calcium levels in Farley set us back almost $500, then an appointment with a specialist in internal medicine cost another $193. Not to mention the two required prescriptions Farley has taken for three years, which amount to over $80 a month.
But after he read these financial stats, Farley confidently opined, “But you know I’m worth it, daddy! How can you put a price tag on someone like me!?”
Indeed, whether in reference to affection for a person or for an animal, love takes the pain out of sacrifice.
How has your pet benefited you?
In case you didn’t read the story of Wendall, titled “We Loved A Dog,” here’s the link: