Recently a fiction book about dogs climbed onto the New York Times Best Seller list and caused a fairly big stir among dog lovers. The book, A Dog’s Purpose, by W. Bruce Cameron, contends that every dog has a purpose in life. What is that purpose? Well, if medical researchers have anything to say about it, it might be keeping owners healthy. It turns out that pet ownership — especially of dogs — is good for both our physical and psychological health. Here, five amazing ways pets keep us healthy.
1. They Keep Us Calm
The simple act of stroking a dog or cat can lower our blood pressure and heart rate and raise levels of the brain chemicals serotonin and dopamine, which are known to have pleasurable and calming properties. A study involving 240 married couples showed that simply owning a pet (no stroking required) resulted in lower heart rates and blood pressure, even when pet owners were undergoing stressful tests. And being with a pet resulted in quicker recovery from stress — faster even than when with a friend or spouse.
2. They Boost Immunity
With their stress-reducing abilities, pets can prevent stress hormones from wreaking havoc on your immune system. These hormones negatively affect the rest of your body in so many ways that researchers are even just recently discovering new connections. Among other things, chronic stress can cause asthma, bronchitis, diabetes, chronic pain and headaches. Stress is also a major risk factor for having a heart attack. Some studies suggest that stress is actually a greater risk factor for heart disease than obesity!
3. They Keep the Heart Ticking
Who would have thought to test whether owning a dog could help you live longer after a heart attack? Obviously, scientists in one study funded by the National Institute of Health did. They looked at 421 adults who’d suffered heart attacks — and one year later, dog owners were significantly more likely to still be alive than were those who did not own dogs, regardless of the severity of the heart attack. Add to that the fact that male pet owners have fewer signs of heart disease — lower triglyceride and cholesterol levels — than non-owners, researchers say.
4. They Keep Us Moving
Could it be that extra exercise helped those heart attack patients? Several studies have shown that dog owners may get more exercise than the rest of us. One National Institute of Health–funded investigation looked at more than 2,000 adults and found that dog owners who regularly walked their dogs were more physically active and less likely to be obese than those who didn’t own or walk a dog. Additionally, older dog walkers (those between 71 and 82) were shown to have greater mobility inside their homes than non–dog walkers.
5. They Boost Our Social Lives
If you’ve ever visited a dog park, you know that owning a dog often means befriending other dog owners (similar to befriending the parents of your children’s classmates). Studies back this up, reporting that walking with a dog leads to more conversations and helps you stay socially connected. The perk there is that studies also show that people who have more social relationships tend to live longer and are less likely to show mental and physical decline as they grow older.