Canine companions: why having a dog is good for your health & well-being

“Dogs are not our whole life, but they make our lives whole.” —Roger Caras, wildlife photographer & animal preservationist

Over 8 million Canadians own a dog and while they have long been hailed as man's best friend (and women too), it turns out that canine companions also have a positive effect on health and well-being. Our furry family members not only offer unconditional love and a friendly wagging tail when you walk in the door, research confirms what most pet owners already know – dogs are really good for us!

Dogs have been used in pet therapy for years and are most well-known for their work as guide dogs for the visually impaired. Through years of domestication, dogs have adapted well to their human masters and are innately aware of our behaviors and emotions. We share a social environment with them and research has shown that dogs are sensitive to emotional cues in our voices. In pet therapy, dogs provide comfort to people of all ages while helping to reduce anxiety, loneliness and stress.  A study from the University of Missouri showed that petting a dog for just 15 minutes releases serotonin and oxytocin, known as the feel-good hormones and can lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol.

Dogs also help us stay active - just mention the word walk and you’re bound to send a dog into a frenzied state of anticipation. That kind of enthusiasm is hard to ignore, which is likely why dog owners walk more than people who don’t own one. According to a Canadian study published in the Journal of Preventative Medicine, dog owners walk an average of 300 minutes per week compared to non-dog owners, who walk about 168 minutes per week.  Most of the participants cited the obligation to walk the dog to as the motivating factor - in other words, even if you don’t feel like getting up off that couch, your dog will usually win out! The study concluded that getting a dog is a viable strategy to increase one’s level of physical activity.

The America Heart Association published a scientific statement in their Circulation Journal after reviewing all the research on pet ownership and cardiovascular disease. Some noteworthy conclusions - dog owners exercise more, have lower blood pressure, and are more likely to survive a heart attack. Therefore, dog ownership can offer a “reasonable reduction in cardiovascular disease”. The article also affirmed that dog ownership is associated with a lower incidence of obesity.

That affectionate bond people share with their dogs is also good for mental health and well-being, particularly for older adults. As we age, our circle of loved ones and friends gets smaller and pets can provide much need companionship for those who live alone. Dogs have that infectious vitality and lovable nature that can brighten someone’s day and give them a reason to get up in the morning. In a survey published last year in Advances in Aging Research, participants aged 65 and older stated that having a dog gave them a reason to leave the house every day and helped them stay in contact with people as they walked around their neighborhood. Participants also stated they liked having an animal to care for and enjoyed petting, playing and even talking with the dog.  

Of course, dog ownership comes with its fair share of responsibilities, which can be challenging as you get older. If you are thinking about getting a dog, here are a few things to consider:

  • Dogs can be expensive – whether it’s their food, grooming, training or regular trips to the veterinarian, dogs cost money like anything else. Make sure you can accommodate those added expenses.
  • Different breeds have different needs and temperaments – When choosing a breed or rescue dog, consider just how active you want to be.  Some breeds are very high energy, requiring a lot of exercise. If your dog was bred to complete some sort of canine job like retrieving, they will have a lot of get up and go!
  • Dogs can pose a tripping hazard - Some dogs are always underfoot, following you all over the house and circling around you when they are hungry. They are also low to the ground and harder to see. Try putting a small bell on their collar so you can hear them as they move around the house and around you!

Finally, if someone would love the companionship of a dog without the responsibility of owning one, consider volunteering at a local animal shelter. 

Blog contributor Krystal Stokes is the Communications & Public Relations Manager at Victoria Lifeline and proud mom to her dog Wellington. 

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