Weekly column in the Washington Times Communities by Laurie Edwards-Tate
Americans love their dogs. Four out of ten households in the U.S. own at least one dog, a total of 77.5 million dogs. Study after study finds that pets bring many benefits to people. They offer companionship, encourage exercise, foster social contact, and help people cope with stress.
Pets provide special enrichment to the lives of seniors. A study in the Journal of American Geriatrics demonstrated that “seniors living on their own who have pets tend to have better physical health and mental well-being than those who don’t. They are more active, cope better with stress and have better overall health. They also reported shorter hospital stays and less health care costs than non-pet owners.”
In another study by British psychologist Dr. Deborah Wells, she confirms through a review of numerous health studies that pet owners are in better general health than people who do not own pets.
The benefits of pet ownership are nearly instantaneous. New pet owners reported a drop in minor health problems during the first month after bringing a new pet home according to a research survey. Pet owners as a whole require fewer visits to the doctor and less need for medication.
While all pets are beneficial, dogs in particular provide superior benefits for their human companions.
The top reasons to own a dog include:
- Reduced stress and lower blood pressure – Health Behavior News Service reports that people feel less stress when facing a challenge task or emotional upset when their pets are with them. Stress is reduced even more than when a family member or friend is nearby.
- Increased amount of exercise – Dog owners participate in more physical activity than non-dog owners. A 2006 University of Missouri-Colombia research study assigned overweight and sedentary men and women a dog, instructing them to walk the dog three times a week for ten minutes each, increasing gradually to five walks weekly and twenty minutes per walk. At the end of one year, the people in the study had lost an average 14 pounds without any change in diet. People stayed with the program out of a sense of obligation to their dogs, and because they said it was enjoyable.
The most effective exercise companions are medium sized working, herding and sporting breed dogs able to walk longer distances at a brisk pace: retrievers, Labradors, spaniels, pointers, Dobermans, larger terriers, collies, and shepherds.
- Increased social interaction – Dogs make wonderful icebreakers. People who might be shy to approach another person are not shy when approaching another person with a dog. One study even shows that wheelchair users, when accompanied by a dog, experience more positive social interactions with strangers.
- Increased quality of life – A person feels needed, loved, and appreciated by the unconditional love and companionship of a pet. Nursing homes and hospitals are embracing pet therapy programs. Even brief regular visits from therapy dogs improve the physical and mental health of residents. Alzheimer’s patients will smile and laugh due to interactions with therapy dogs. In a 2009 study, patients recovering from joint replacement surgery needed 50 percent less pain medication after visits by therapy dogs.
But we do not need studies to confirm what all dog owners know: the human spirit is genuinely moved and enlightened by the unwavering love and affection of a precious pet.
While pet ownership has numerous benefits, it is also a lifelong responsibility. It is not for everyone. The cost and care of having a pet should be considered before making the commitment to acquire a pet. However, the costs can be offset by improved health due to increased activity and boosts to mental health, which results in fewer visits to a doctor or reduced medication.
If you are thinking about getting a pet, please do your homework and make sure the breed or mix you choose is right for you and your lifestyle. There are numerous resources for information including the American Kennel Club, and specialty breed clubs; and local rescue organizations, humane societies and shelters. Professional obedience trainers and veterinarians can also be good sources of information.
Until next time, enjoy the ride in good health!