Pets: How your dog affects your health

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Owning a dog motivates you to engage in physical activity, whether it's long walks or running (File photo)
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By Kim Gilliam

Kim Gilliam

Scientific Reports found that dogs may help reduce their owners’ risk of cardiovascular disease through companionship and by motivating their owners to be active.

It looked at 3.4 million people between the ages of 40 and 80 and found that having a dog was associated with a 23 percent reduction in death from heart disease and a 20 percent lower risk of dying from any cause over the 12 years of the study.

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. Dog owners have also been shown to have better responses to stress — where their blood pressure and pulse rates don’t soar — higher levels of physical activity, decreased cholesterol levels and fewer heart attacks. What’s more, dog owners who do have heart attacks have better survival rates.
The latest study found the biggest positive impact of having a dog was on people who live alone.

“It seems that a dog can be a substitute for living with other people in terms of reducing the risk of dying,” Tove Fall, lead author, said in the study. “Dogs encourage you to walk, they provide social support and they make life more meaningful. If you have a dog, you interact more with other people. If you do get ill and go into hospital and you have a dog, there’s a huge motivation to try to get back home.”

The study authors were also surprised to find that people who owned dogs
that were originally bred for hunting — like terriers, retrievers and scent hounds — were the most protected from heart disease and death. Because these dogs typically need more exercise than other breeds, their owners may be more likely to meet physical activity guidelines, they say.Health experts recommend that adults get about two-and-a-half hours of moderate exercise each week. Dog owners are proven to be more active than non-dog owners and much more likely to hit that goal.

In turn, that activity helps improve an owner’s mobility into their 70s and 80s. A 2017 study in The 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.”

Dog ownership can benefit mental health as well. While it may be obvious that pets offer a direct source of companionship to their owners, they have also been found to be great catalysts for the formation of their owners’ friendships and social support networks. A telephone survey of more than 2,500 people in 2015 found that pet owners were significantly more likely to get to know people in their neighborhood than non-pet owners, and that dog owners were significantly more likely to regard people whom they met through their pet as a friend.

Because social isolation is a risk factor for poor mental health, and, conversely, friendships and social support are protective factors for individual and community well-being, pets may be an important factor in developing healthy neighborhoods.

Here in Alexandria, it is estimated that one out of every four residents has a dog, so it’s no wonder we have such a strong community, ranked among the “Top 100 Best Places to Live” in the nation.

Kim Gilliam co-owns Frolick Dogs, an indoor dog gym in Alexandria, with her husband, Kevin Gilliam.

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