Animal therapy is a growing field, and its benefits are increasingly being backed up by science.
They’re cute, they’re loyal, and they’re so silly that humans have created an entire language just for them (yes, we heckin’ love pupperinos). Everyone knows that dogs are our best friends and constant companions, but fewer realize that in many ways, dogs also function as our health coaches. Yet as science increasingly shows, man’s best friend is also the ultimate personal trainer, mental health coach, and health supplement. Here are seven ways dogs improve our physical and mental health.
They force you to exercise
The most obvious health benefit of owning a dog, of course, is all those walks. Depending on the breed, your dog might push you to put several extra miles on your step-counter every day. Dogs bred to do high-energy jobs, like cattle dogs, need a lot of exercise and will whip you into shape in no time. Or if you’re hoping for a more of a leisurely pace, a smaller dog will still push you to hit the streets for a more moderate stroll.
They’ll make you more social
If you find you have a tendency to enter hermit mode, a dog can help you counteract your loner tendencies. After all, when you’re out with a dog, everyone is your friend. If you’re open to talking, you’ll have no shortage of conversational partners. Other dog owners will wanna chat, dog-wanters will have technical questions questions about breed and age, and straight-up dog lovers of all stripes will want to know anything and everything about your pupper.
They reduce your risk of heart disease, somehow
Studies have shown that people who own dogs have a lowered risk of heart disease. According the Harvard Heart Letter, the American Heart Association found that people who own dogs have lower blood pressure and a better cholesterol profile. But when it comes to why dogs help our hearts, we don’t definitively know. Some scientists theorize it’s because dog owners are more active, while others attribute it to love and companionship. Whatever the reason, it seems that dogs are good for the human heart on more than a symbolic level.
They help your mental health
Animal therapy is a growing field, and its benefits are increasingly being backed up by science. Spending time with dogs have been shown to decrease anxiety and depression, but perhaps even more surprisingly, people with conditions like schizophrenia and biploar disorder have reported that pets are one of the things that help them the most. Having a very close bond with a nonjudgmental creature is highly beneficial. As Mark Longsjo, program director of an inpatient mental health facility, told NPR, "We have so many patients come through, and we always ask them about their support system. Sometimes its family members, sometimes its friends, but it's very common to hear about pets."
They sniff out serious diseases
Admittedly, your average pup who spends its days drinking out of the toilet and barking at snowflakes may not be able to tell you if you have a serious disease. But some types of dogs can be trained to smell out serious diseases, including cancer. These dogs use their extra-sensitive noses to detect “volatile organic compounds” that indicate cancer in human urine and breath. In other words, your dog is not just a great cuddler, but also potentially an amazing diagnostic tool.
They’ll keep the doctor away
An apple a day may not actually affect your likelihood of seeing a doctor, but a dog a day might. According to a study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, people who had pets saw doctors less over a one-year period than people who didn’t. The study also found that while people tend to see doctors more frequently during times of stress, people with pets did not. The study noted that “owners of dogs, in particular, were buffered from the impact of stressful life events on physician utilization.”
They’re . . . probiotic?
It’s a relatively new finding, and a strange one, but recent studies have shown that dogs not only share our homes and our beds, but they also might share our microbes — or rather, they might share theirs with us. According to a New York Times article, studies have shown that dogs increase the number of bacterial species in our home, and that this can actually have positive effects, such as reducing the likelihood of immune disorders. This may account for why people who live with a dog since infancy have a lower risk of asthma and allergies. Dogs and humans have lived together for up to 40,000 years, so it’s possible that in that time, we have become codependent even on a microbial level. You know what they say — good friends share brunch, but best friends share bacteria.