It’s official… Australia loves dogs! Animal Medicines Australia (AMA) reported around 40% of households have at least one dog. That’s about 5.1 million dogs nationwide! According to the Sydney Morning Herald, Australians spend an estimated $12.2 billion a year on products and services for their pets. That’s a big industry!
Part of the reason for the boom in the billion-dollar pet industry is the increasing humanisation of pets. Our ‘fur-babies’ are getting treated more and more like human babies, with pet parenting behaviour closely resembling parent-child parenting. We give them human names, we talk to them like they’re babies, we dress them up in human outfits and we give them their own Instagram accounts! They’re a major part of our family.
As a dog owner and a vet, I’ve seen so many dogs who have changed human lives, or even saved them. They bring life and joy and personality into our homes. They light up our lives, giving us purpose and making us happier and healthier. Even people who don’t have dogs love it when a cute puppy struts past. And how many hours of cute doggy vids do we all watch on YouTube?
Scientific Proof of the Health Benefits of Dogs
A dog’s positive effects on well-being are even backed by science. Psychologist Harold Herzog told CNN different studies tell us there are up to 10 health benefits of owning pets. These include high survival rates, fewer heart attacks, less loneliness, better blood pressure, better psychological well-being, lower rates of depression and stress levels, fewer doctor visits, increased self-esteem, better sleep and more physical activity.
However, Herzog also mentioned other studies citing pets’ negative impacts on their owner’s health such as migraines, panic attacks, and depression. Other studies find no significant differences in the health of pet owners from those with no pets.
So why the mixed results? Well there are a bunch of diverse methodologies being used in the studies. It’s difficult to conduct randomised controlled trials. This means researchers will study current pet owners as opposed to randomly assigning pets to a group of people. This gives them less control over factors affecting the health of their research participants.
Despite the methodological limitation, a growing body of research confirms the positive effects of dogs to a person’s mental and physical health. Let’s take a look at the most widely accepted claims backed by multiple studies:
Dogs as Mood Boosters
There’s a reason why mental health professionals often prescribe an emotional support animal (ESA) to patients with mental or emotional disability. Unlike service animals which perform specific tasks for their owners, ESAs provide comfort and reassurance.
Studies have shown the mere presence of dogs can put people in a good mood, lessen anxiety, and reduce stress. Patricia Pendry from Washington State University, found dogs can reduce the risk of students dropping out due to stress. Results from her study involving 300 undergraduates showed that “soothing sessions” with dogs made stressed students at high risk of academic failure “feel relaxed and accepted.”
In another study, researchers found that dogs trigger dopamine or the “pleasure hormone.” Cuddling with your dog can help alleviate stress and improve your disposition. Even a workplace which is a high-stress environment has been known to benefit from the stress-relieving effect of dogs. Our furry friends bring happiness, joy and smiles!
Dogs Help People Live Longer
A systematic review of nearly 70 years of global research found dogs are good for your heart. What’s more, dog ownership reduces the risk of dying early by 24%. Mount Sinai endocrinologist Dr. Caroline Kramer found people who had a heart attack or stroke had a 31% reduced risk of dying from cardiovascular disease.
An American Heart Association studied over 336,000 Swedish men and women. It found dog owners showed better health outcomes after going through a major cardiovascular event such as heart attack or stroke.
It seems kinda logical to me that dogs would be good for our hearts, so these studies make sense. I mean, dogs fill our hearts with love and happiness… that’s got to be good for us!
Dogs Improve Social Skills
Not surprisingly, research also shows that dogs can improve interpersonal skills. How many times have you noticed random people approaching dog owners to pet their cute puppy and have a chat?
The presence of dogs can even help children with autism interact with others in social situations. Lead author Gretchen Carlisle, a research fellow at the University of Missouri, observed that dogs act as “social lubricant” for these kids. They help them become more assertive and give them confidence.
What Can We Learn from a Dog’s Philosophy?
Health benefits aside, dogs can teach us valuable lessons. Taking care of a dog helps us focus on the needs of something other than ourselves. They teach us responsibility and empathy. They help us become better people because of their infectious cheerfulness and simple way of looking at the world.
In my book, “Dr. Claire’s Love Your Dog,” I discuss how a dog’s life revolving around simple pleasures like eating, sleeping, and living in the moment can unlock profound life lessons. One of the best lessons I learned as a vet and a dog owner is their enormous capacity to love! Dogs don’t need to be reassured about your love for them, they simply love you and they don’t hold back. They will greet you, tails wagging enthusiastically, whether you were gone for just an hour or a whole year. We can all learn from this kind of unconditional love.
Who knows… maybe one day it’ll be possible to ‘prescribe’ a dog to a troubled child or cardiovascular patient. Maybe their health benefits will be recognised to the point that they are officially ‘doggy’ medicine! Until then, we’ll go back to what most of us intuitively know: dogs are AMAZING!