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4 ways a dog can improve your health

Woman kissing her dog

The affection and responsibility you feel toward your canine pal could boost your mood, reduce your pain and more.  

Britta Lokting

By Britta Lokting

The pandemic has been hard on humans, but it’s been great for dogs. Pet ownership spiked during lockdown. And among those who adopted a cat or dog, 13% were new pet owners, according to a survey from Rover.com.

But what’s good for pups is good for people, too. Owning a dog makes you about 24% less likely to die from any cause during the next decade. This is according to a study in the journal Circulation. Pet ownership is on par with other ways to stay healthy, such as exercise, routine doctor visits and taking medication as prescribed. (If you want some help paying for that medication, download the Optum Perks app.)

So how exactly can dogs help you live longer? Let us count the ways.

1. Dogs provide a healthy routine

Lifestyle changes such as retirement or working from home can make it difficult to follow a schedule. But dogs can help. Your canine pal will love routine walks so much that you might learn to love them, too. In a survey of nearly 6,000 pet owners in the U.K., nearly two-thirds said their pets helped keep them fit and active during the pandemic.

But a dog is more than an excuse to walk. Your pet will need to be fed and watered. And you might find that he or she enjoys playing in the evening. All these activities create a healthy structure for your day.

In a 2020 study published in Scientific Reports, dog owners expressed happiness over cuddling with their pet and having the animal greet them when they came home. But one of the most common positive aspects of ownership had to do with routine. People liked helping their pets throughout the day.

It makes sense. As a pet owner, you’re taking on the role of a caregiver. That creates a sense of purpose that’s associated with improved mental health, says Cathleen Connell, PhD. She’s a professor in the department of health behavior and health education at the University of Michigan School of Public Health in Ann Arbor. “You are their only provider,” says Connell. And that’s a powerful feeling.

2. Dogs can help you cope with pain

Routine dog walks can be great for physical health. Research shows daily strolls can slow cognitive decline and improve your heart health. But for a benefit you might feel sooner, they can also soothe your body aches.

According to the Arthritis Foundation, 30 to 60 minutes of daily walking can reduce pain, stiffness and inflammation in your joints. The result holds even if you’re breaking your walks into smaller 10- or 15-minute intervals. (New to rheumatoid arthritis? Check out our newbie’s guide to treatment.)

Research shows that pets may also promote pain management in ways that are less obvious. A study published in 2019 noted that in addition to being more physically active, pet owners age 70 and older are more likely to maintain consistent sleep schedules and socialize with other pet owners. Both behaviors can help with pain management.

If you’re shopping for a pet, just make sure you target pups that match your energy level, says Connell. She co-authored the 2019 study above on pain management. “A pet can be the perfect companion to inspire walking, as long as it’s not a mismatch,” she says. An older adult, for example, might not want a big, hyper puppy.

For a dog that will get you moving without knocking you over, consider pugs, beagles, Chihuahuas and Boston terriers. These breeds tend to work well for older adults, according to US Service Animals.

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3. Dogs can improve your mental health

Dogs are often used as emotional support animals, and with good reason. A 2019 study found that watching video clips of a golden retriever reduced anxiety in college students. And the effect was several times greater among students who were allowed to physically play with the golden retriever. The students also reported higher levels of joy and enthusiasm. (Another unlikely source of mental health support: your pharmacist.)

The researchers who conducted the study note that college is often stressful. Owning a dog is a reliable way to help protect mental health. And that’s true at any age, says Connell.

4. Dogs provide companionship

Loneliness is a serious health issue. Social isolation is linked to higher rates of dementia, stroke and depression. This is according to data collected by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The CDC also notes that among people who have heart attacks, those who are lonely are 4 times more likely to die.

But once again, your pup can save the day. In a survey from the Human Animal Bond Research Institute, 80% of pet owners claimed that their animals made them feel less lonely.

The result is clear: Furry friends bring meaning to the lives of their owners. And in turn, they help us stay physically and mentally strong.

Additional sources
New pet owners during the pandemic: Rover.com. "The Pandemic Pet Adoption Boom: What We’ve Learned, One Year Later"
Pets helped people stay fit and active during the Covid-19 pandemic: PLOS One (2020). "Human-animal relationships and interactions during the Covid-19 lockdown phase in the UK: Investigating links with mental health and loneliness"
Daily walks can slow cognitive decline: Neurology (2010). "Physical activity predicts gray matter volume in late adulthood"
Daily walks can improve heart health: Preventing Chronic Disease (2019). "Walking as an Opportunity for Cardiovascular Disease Prevention"
Owning a dog makes you less likely to die in the next decade: Circulation (2019). "Dog Ownership and Survival A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis"
Pet owners more likely to socialize and maintain healthy sleep schedules: Journal of Applied Gerontology (2019). "The Role of Pets in Supporting Cognitive-Behavioral Chronic Pain Self-Management: Perspectives of Older Adults"
Dogs boost self-esteem in their owners: Scientific Reports (2020). "A framework for understanding how activities associated with dog ownership relate to human well-being"
Dogs reduce stress, anxiety and depression: Animals (2019). "Paws for Thought: A Controlled Study Investigating the Benefits of Interacting with a House-Trained Dog on University Students Mood and Anxiety"
Health risks associated with loneliness: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
80% of dog owners feel less lonely: Human Animal Bond Research Institute