Why owning a dog is good for your health

Dave Allen running with Poppy. Photo / Thinkstock
Dave Allen running with Poppy. Photo / Thinkstock

Being a dog owner could save your life, or significantly lengthen it.

Increasing amounts of research are showing the link between dog ownership and better physical and mental health. Last year the American Heart Association stated dog ownership may protect against heart disease; a recent broad-ranging Swedish study came to the same conclusion.

Registration of dog ownership has been mandatory in Sweden since 2001, so researchers used national dog registers to assess the association between dog ownership and the incidence of cardiovascular disease. They concluded dog owners were at a lower risk for ischemic stroke, hemorrhagic stroke and heart failure.

Another interesting finding was the benefit was particularly strong for older people living alone.

While the study did not explore whether dog owners were healthier to start with, a contributing factor is likely to be the fact owners who walk their dogs do more exercise than the general population - which may produce better blood pressure, improve cholesterol profiles and lower the risk of diabetes.

Other studies have also noted dog ownership tends to reduce the risk of depression, also a cardiovascular risk factor.

As well as keeping their owners fit and active, dogs have been shown to have a positive mental effect, especially on the elderly and children.

Various studies have shown:

• animals reduce blood pressure and stress levels
• dog ownership increases social interaction
• the unconditional love people receive from their pets promotes increased feelings of wellbeing.

Recent research published by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has shown significant benefits for children who have a pet dog in terms of reduced anxiety levels. The study, by the Bassett Medical Center in New York state, found nearly twice as many children in non-dog households screened positive for anxiety symptoms than in dog-owning homes.

The researchers suggested interacting with a friendly dog reduced children's cortisol levels, most likely through the release of the "happy hormone" oxytocin.

Having a dog in the home can also be beneficial for children's physical health. A Finnish study showed young children brought up with a dog had fewer infectious respiratory problems and ear infections and were less likely to be prescribed antibiotics.

Interestingly, the benefit increased the more time the dog spent outside, "bacterial diversity" - or the number of germs the dog carried inside - being an important positive factor in increasing children's overall immunity.

But you don't have to tell a dog owner any of this. Dave Allan, general manager of pet-food manufacturer Jimbo's, is a life-long dog lover and enthusiast for the many benefits of having a canine companion. His most recent dog is nine-year-old bitzer Poppy, rescued from the streets of Pukekohe and an integral part of Allan's family.

"The first thing is, she makes me exercise. I have to take her out for a run each day," Allan says. "Plus, it teaches you patience as well - I call it the walk of the thousand piddles."

But behind the light-heartedness is a serious benefit: walking Poppy makes him slow down, de-stress and take time to enjoy the world. Plus, she's a conversation starter and a way of making a social connection with people in the community.

"When I'm with the dog, people are more likely to come up and have a chat than if I was just a guy on my own," he says.

Allan also brings Poppy into the Jimbo's office - surely heaven for a dog - and notices the positive effect she has on the mood of the staff.

"The dog is the first person I see in the morning, and she just makes me feel good. It doesn't matter what mood you're in, you come home and see the dog and it brings a smile to your face. She's a part of the family, and everyone loves her," Allan says.

"Another thing is, dogs wag their tails, not their mouths - and we can all learn from that."

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