Ninety-seven percent of doctors believe in the healing power of pets, according to a 2014 survey from the Human Animal Bond Research Institute.
The Healing Power of Pets
I’ll never forget the first time a pet photography client of mine told me that her dog saved her from committing suicide. I’ll be honest, it was shocking to me. I thought I loved my dogs as much as anybody, but this was a level of love and bonding that was deeper and more raw than anything I’d ever experienced. I appreciated her story and the courage it took for her to tell it to me, but I didn’t fully understand how a dog’s love could save a life.
Then I went through my own dark days. At my lowest point, it was my dogs who got me out of bed every day. Who got me out on walks. Who sat by my side night after lonely night. Who smiled and snorted and wiggled with happiness every time I came home, and who slowly helped me see that I am loved. That I am lovable.
I don’t know how I could have come through it all without my dogs. I understand my client’s story—and all the quietly whispered stories that came after hers—better now. We don’t always talk openly about it, but our dogs make us happier. They make us healthier. At our very lowest points, they give us something to care about other than our own pain.
But even without a major trauma or illness in your life, there are still plenty of health benefits that come with living with dogs. There’s even a recently coined word for it: zooeyia (ZOO-ee-ya), or the positive health benefits people get from interacting with animals. And zooeyia is getting some serious attention from scientists and health practitioners lately.
Here is a roundup of nine of the most interesting—and proven—ways that our dogs make us happier and healthier. Consider this your cheat sheet of interesting comebacks next time someone asks you, “Why do you love dogs so much?”
Dogs Help Us Live Longer
A Swedish study published in 2018 found that our dogs might give us healthier hearts and a longer life. Not by an insignificant amount, either. Living with a dog was associated with a 20 percent lower risk of death from any cause, and a 23 percent lower risk of death from cardiovascular disease. Separate studies have found that living with a dog can keep artery-blocking cholesterol and triglyceride levels down.
Dogs Reverse the Effects of Stress
After a stressful day, you know you love to cuddle with your dog–but did you know it’s good for your body, too? Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania found that petting a dog reduces many symptoms of stress. Within just a few minutes, blood pressure can go down, heart rate can slow, breathing becomes more regular and muscles might relax. Even our blood chemistry can change, with levels of the “love hormone” oxytocin rising and stress-related hormones such as cortisol dropping. That’s good news, because cortisol is the “fight or flight” hormone that can cause inflammation, anxiety and depression (among other things) if levels stay high for a prolonged period of time.
Dogs Help Us Sleep Better
I know I have a hard time sleeping without my three snoring, snuffling Boxers in the room—something that anyone who has watched my dogs overnight finds hard to comprehend. Sure, it might take some getting used to, but a recent Mayo Clinic study found that dog parents can actually sleep better with their dogs in the room. This is most likely because they feel a greater sense of safety and comfort from having them close. However, there is such a thing as too close. Once dogs are allowed in the bed with you, sleep quality goes down. Your best bet is to give your dog his own bed to roll around in, and put it next to yours.
Dogs Make Us Feel Less Lonely
There are a lot of ways our dogs can help us feel less lonely, including the obvious companionship and their knack of actually getting us outside the house on walks. In fact, a survey in 2015 found that almost half of us think dog-walking is a great way to make friends, and 29 percent report making lifelong friends with people they meet on dog walks. But dogs themselves also provide us with social support and connection. One study found that dog owners reported receiving as much social support from their dogs as they did from their close family members. Some of the benefits of this social support include feeling a greater sense of belonging, greater self-esteem, more control, less depression and less stress.
Dogs Strengthen Our Immune Systems
If you have babies in the house, your dog could be giving them a stronger immune system. A study published in JAMA Pediatrics found that exposure to dogs during the first year of life led to a lower risk of asthma and eczema. What about later in life? There’s good reason to believe dogs keep introducing good bacteria (“microbiota”) throughout our lives. The University of Arizona Department of Psychiatry is currently studying whether or not dogs act as “probiotics” for older people, enhancing our health and well-being even as we age.
Dogs Are Good Therapists
Whether we need emotional or physical therapy, our dogs can provide a little bit of both. Lots of studies have found that having a dog can ease the symptoms of depression, give us a more optimistic outlook, and reduce anxiety-related illnesses. Dogs can also improve quality of life for people with autism and be good support for kids learning to read. And therapy dogs encourage mobility and can even make us more stable on our feet (which comes in handy when they try to dash off after squirrels).
Dogs Make Us Move More
According to a 2013 statement from the American Heart Association, dogs keep us moving. Dog parents are 57 percent more likely to get the recommended amount of exercise each week, as compared to people without dogs. That also means that people who walk their dogs regularly are less likely to be obese. And the time spent outdoors is an added benefit, as time spent in nature can raise vitamin D levels, boost immunity to disease and reduce depression.
Dogs Ease Our Pain
I know that caring for my dogs daily helped distract me from the emotional pain of grief and depression. But physical pain can also be relieved by having a dog friend around. Loyola University Chicago researchers found that joint replacement surgery patients needed less pain medication when they were visited by a therapy dog. That’s because petting a dog releases endorphins, the pleasure-producing hormone that also acts as a pain reliever.
Dogs Keep Us Present
The only way our dogs know how to live is in the present. Spend some time observing them on walks or petting them quietly and some of that in-the-moment magic might rub off on you, too. If you find yourself ruminating over past hurts, worrying about what-ifs or cycling through the negative voices in your head, turn to your dog for relief. Find a sunbeam to lay in, leash up your dog for a walk, or simply toss a ball around. Whatever you do, give your dog your full attention for a few minutes, and notice how he gives you his. In that moment, it’s a wonderful gift to feel like nothing else matters.
How Can We Give Our Dogs the Same Health Benefits?
When I look at this list of benefits that our dogs give us, it makes me want to return the favor. I want to know: how can I give my dogs the same emotional, mental and physical benefits they give me? What can I do to give them more joy, more health, more quality years of life? I’m kind of obsessed with these questions, actually. I’m making it my mission to help dog moms create happier, healthier lives for their dogs—and themselves. I’d love to have you come along. Just put your email in the box below and I’ll send you all the best baby steps for how we can be #betterwithdog.
What would you add to this to this list of how your dog keeps you happier and healthier? Comment on the post, share your story, join the Facebook group or follow @thehappydogmom on social for more info on how dogs heal us and we can heal our dogs.