A drug-free way to boost your health

If you could buy something that’s virtually guaranteed to improve your health, make you happier, get you out into the fresh air more often and is good for the national economy, would you consider getting it? Oh, and it’s drug free. 

Caution – it’s addictive. When it’s gone, you’ll probably want another one. 

So do you want one? Well, go along to your nearest dog refuge. You can get one there and it will be quite cheap. And it will wag its tail just as enthusiastically as a pedigreed dog. 

Australia has one of the highest rates of pet ownership in the world, according to the Australian Veterinary Association, with dogs the most popular. The association estimates there were 4.8 million dogs in Australia last year, that’s 20 dogs for every 100 people. 

The RSPCA says the benefits are huge, citing a recent study that claimed ownership of cats and dogs in Australia saved about $3.86 billion in health expenditure annually. A similar study in the US estimated their savings at $11.7 billion. Is man’s best friend also the health minister’s best friend? 

The physical and psychological benefits of owning a dog are many, according to the RSPCA. These include:

  • Increased cardiovascular health (lower blood pressure, lower triglycerides and in men, lower cholesterol)
  • Increased physical activity. Dogs get us out for regular exercise in all sorts of weather
  • Fewer visits to the doctor
  • Less depression, with dog owners appearing to cope with grief, stress and loss better than non-dog owners
  • Enhanced social connectedness and social skills as a result of getting out more to walk dogs
  • Increased safety and comfort with your dog always about.

You may be thinking that the RSPCA is blowing its own trumpet. But research studies from around the world roll in regularly. A paper titled ‘Dog ownership and the risk of cardiovascular disease and death’ published in Scientific Reports in November was 12 years in the making. It was based on a survey of 3.4 million Swedes aged 40 to 80 – more than one hundred times larger than the next biggest study, the authors claimed. 

The research concluded: “There might be direct effects of dog ownership on health outcomes. One mechanism by which dog ownership could reduce cardiovascular disease (CVD) risk and mortality is by alleviating psychosocial stress factors, such as social isolation, depression and loneliness – all reportedly lower in dog owners.

“Dog ownership has also been associated with … lower reactivity to stress and faster recovery of blood pressure following stressful activity.

“Apart from the social support, it has consistently been shown that dog owners achieve more physical activity and spend more time engaged in outdoor activities.” 

The study found that individuals in single households and who were at risk of CVD benefitted most from owning a dog. 

But a word of caution. The research states: “We found that ownership of a dog from breeds originally bred for hunting (including terriers, retrievers, scent hounds and related dogs) was associated with a lower risk of CVD. Ownership of a mixed-breed dog was associated with higher risk of CVD.” 

Another report in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, based on a survey of 3123 participants aged between 49 and 91, found that dog owners took 2760 more steps per day on average compared to non-owners. That amounted to an extra 23 minutes a day of moderate exercise. 

“We were amazed to find that dog walkers were on average more physically active and spent less time sitting on the coldest, wettest and darkest days than non-dog owners were on long, sunny and warm summer days,” said project lead professor Andy Jones.

He said the findings were important in developing strategies to motivate people to stay active as they age.

The study acknowledges that not everyone can own a dog but offers other ways to enjoy the same benefits. “Dog walking opportunities for older adults who don’t own a dog could be organised by local community organisations or charities, and dog walking groups may provide wider well-being benefits associated with increased social contact.”

Studies have reported that pets provide an enormous lift to the atmosphere in hospices and nursing homes, yet many still do not allow pets.

An Australian study by Patricia Crowley found that 18 months after a nursing home bought a whippet, residents reported reduced tension and confusion, and less fatigue.

  • Associate Professor of Nursing at the University of Michigan Mara Baun showed that pets could induce a social response from people with advanced Alzheimer’s disease – even those who were not responding to people.
  • A review of a dog in a hospice showed patients spent less time alone than before the dog arrived and staff noted that it gave everyone something to talk about.
  • A Canadian study concluded that dogs helped keep people active and gave owners a reason to get up in the morning.
  • A study in Japan found a positive link between pet ownership and daily activity, and concluded that a dog might be linked to better overall health in the elderly.

Do you have a dog? What’s your experience?

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Written by Janelle Ward

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