Those who have a pet know how much fun and affection they bring to one’s life. But those who do not might be surprised to learn that pets bring with them some pretty powerful mental and physical health benefits, too.
In fact, pets – particularly dogs – can be a secret to a healthier and happier life.
Dogs not only add real joy and unconditional love to your life, but they also can improve your physical and mental health, as well as the health of those around you.
Here are the top 10 reasons why dogs make us happier and healthier.
1. Makes You Physically Active
Being a responsible pet owner, you know that your four-legged friend requires daily exercise. Long walks with your dog will keep you as well as your pet physically active. In fact, walking is one of the best exercises for adults.
A 2006 study published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine found that among western Canadian adults, those who owned a dog participated in more mild to moderate physical activity than those who did not. Dog owners walked an average of 300 minutes per week, compared with non-dog owners who walked an average of 168 minutes per week.
The study even concludes that acquiring a dog should be explored as an intervention to get people to be more physically active.
A 2011 study published in the Journal of Physical Activity & Health analyzed the impact of dog walking on leisure-time physical activity from a survey of Michigan adults. It found that dog walking was associated with more walking and leisure-time physical activity, however a substantial proportion of dog owners do not walk their dog.
If you don’t feel motivated to be physically active for your own health, remember that exercise is critical for your dog’s health and you’ll both reap the benefits.
2. Reduces Stress
Another great yet unexpected benefit of owning a dog is that they help reduce stress!
Spending time with your pet can help increase levels of the feel-good hormone oxytocin in your brain and lower the production of cortisol, a stress hormone.
A 2006 study published in the Medical Journal of Australia reports that walking a dog has potentially greater health benefits as a buffer against stress in senior citizens than walking without a dog.
A 2008 study published in the International Journal of Workplace Health Management reports that dogs in the workplace may help buffer work stress and make the job more satisfying for non-dog owners, too.
A 2012 study published in Research and Theory for Nurses Practice suggested that interaction with canines may help reduce the biological effects of stress that influences human health. However, more studies with larger sample sizes are needed to support these results.
3. Fights Depression
Apart from helping reduce everyday stress, your pet can also help fight depression and improve your mood.
In fact, pet therapy, or animal-assisted therapy, can lead to a reduction of anxiety, pain and depression in people with a range of mental or physical health problems. It can even build self-confidence in people who are afraid of going out and mingling with others.
Plus, pets offer an unconditional love that can be very helpful to people with depression.
A 2012 study published in Frontiers in Psychology analyzed the psychosocial and psychophysiological effects of human-animal interaction and found that it leads to the improvement of mood, reduction of self-reported fear and anxiety, and reduction of stress-related parameters such as cortisol, heart rate and blood pressure.
A study done in 2015 by researchers at the University of Maine’s Honors College found that there are many mental benefits of first-year college students interacting with dogs, specifically regarding improvements in positive mood.
4. Lowers Heart Disease Risk
Owning a pet also is linked to a reduction in cardiovascular disease risk factors, such as lower blood pressure, lower cholesterol levels and a lower likelihood of obesity.
Research indicates that having pets, especially dogs, can help lower the risk of cardiovascular disease as pets have a calming effect. The power of touch may also have a role to play in this regard.
A 2013 study published in Circulation reports that owning a pet, particularly a dog, could reduce your risk of heart disease and increase survival rate among patients.
The study puts emphasis on the fact that pet owners are more engaged in physical activity, which in turn is associated with lower blood pressure and cholesterol levels, and a lower incidence of obesity.
Pets also can have a positive effect on the body’s reactions to stress, which often leads to many heart problems.
5. Detects Cancer
Dogs have an amazing ability to detect different types of cancer. With about 220 million scent receptors, dogs are becoming famous for detecting cancer, such as skin, breast, lung, prostate and bladder cancer.
Early detection of a deadly disease such as cancer helps prevent the spread of cancerous cells and improves the odds of successful treatment.
A 2006 study published in Integrative Cancer Therapies found that trained dogs with the help of breath samples were able to detect breast cancer with 88 percent accuracy and lung cancer with 99 percent accuracy.
Another study published in Cancer Biomarkers in 2010 found that trained sniffer dogs can help experts detect volatile organic compounds as biomarkers of bladder cancer.
In a 2014 report from the American Urological Association, researchers confirmed that highly trained dogs can recognize prostate-cancer-specific volatile organic compounds in urine samples with 98 percent accuracy.
6. Builds Empathy
Caring for a pet, especially dogs, can strengthen the bonds between humans and provide social and relationship benefits.
Taking care of a pet reminds owners that animals have needs and fulfilling those needs can help owners become more caring and compassionate.
A 2011 study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found that people who had a pet fared better, both in terms of well-being outcomes and individual differences, as compared to those who did not have any pets. Pet owners had greater self-esteem and were more physically fit.
A 2014 study published in Applied Developmental Science surveyed more than 500 young adults (ages 18 to 26) about their attitudes toward and interaction with animals, as well as their general characteristics.
Researchers found that people having greater care for animals also were more likely to be involved in their communities and serve in leadership roles. Plus, such people are found to be more empathetic and confident.
7. Reduces Allergy Risk
Getting your little one a furry friend can be beneficial. Growing up with pets, especially dogs, can make children less prone to allergies and they are less likely to have eczema. Plus, such children have higher levels of certain immune system supporters that keep them disease-free.
In addition, children develop fewer pet allergies if they grow up with a dog.
A 2008 study published in the European Respiratory Journal reports that dog ownership in early childhood protects against the development of inhalant sensitization and this effect cannot be attributed to the simultaneous exposure to house dust endotoxin.
Another study published in 2011 in the Journal of Pediatrics found that dog ownership among children with dog allergies may reduce the risk of developing eczema by age 4. On the other hand, cat ownership may increase the risk among children with cat allergies.
8. Senses Emotions
Whether you are happy or sad, your four-legged companion can sense it immediately, no matter how much you may want to hide your emotions.
Dogs are great watchers and in fact, better than humans. This particular quality of dogs allows them to evaluate the social intentions and motivations of humans. They can discriminate between positive and negative emotions from both humans and dogs.
A 2016 study published in the Royal Society’s Biology Letters reports that dogs can recognize emotions in humans with the help of different visual and auditory cues.
Dogs can form a mental picture of different emotions, such as sad, angry or happy states, in humans and other dogs by combining information from different senses.
Not only do dogs sense emotions, but they even help humans handle the emotions. For instance, if you are sad or crying, your pet will try hard to comfort you in all possible ways.
9. Eases Social Isolation
Social isolation or loneliness can affect your physical as well as mental health. In fact, loneliness is linked to depression, higher suicide rates, cardiovascular disease, increased stress levels, memory problems, poor decision-making, alcoholism, drug abuse and progression of Alzheimer’s disease.
To ease loneliness, your four-legged furry friend is the best companion you can have. Even science confirms that pets help fight loneliness.
A 2010 study published in the Journal of Social Psychology found that keeping a dog hugely benefits women and single adults who are at a higher risk of suffering from loneliness.
A 2011 study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology reports that pets have the ability to stave off negativity caused by social rejection. In fact, pets serve as important sources of social support, providing many positive psychological and physical benefits for their owners.
10. Helps You Quit Smoking
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, an estimated 43.8 million Americans smoke. It is the leading cause of preventable deaths in the U.S. In fact, smoking is linked to several diseases, from respiratory problems to deadly cancers.
Smoking is a habit that is hard to quit. But if you have a pet, quitting can be easier for you.
A 2009 study published in Tobacco Control found that 28 percent of smokers who have pets reported that knowledge of the harmful effects of secondhand smoke on their pets motivated them to quit.
It also motivates both smoking and nonsmoking pet owners to make their homes smoke-free.
Some pet owners even train their dog as a smoke alarm. This means the dog starts barking at the first sign of smoke, which can be enough to make a person put out their cigarette.