Live Like Royalty: The Many Health Benefits of Dogs, Man's Best Friend

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Dog owners worldwide enjoy longer lifespans on average, reduced blood pressure, improved cardiovascular fitness, and far less stress.

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The young royals, Prince William and Duchess of Cambridge Kate Middleton, created headlines late last month by revealing the name of their new puppy. Not mentioned in the multitude of stories is how the dog's presence can affect the health of the future King and Queen. The latest addition to the Royal family, Lupo, a four-month-old black cocker spaniel, is an ideal pet choice. Medical studies around the world have concluded dogs encourage better health, and adopting one statistically boosts the life expectancy of the monarchial pair. Not only is a dog man's best friend, but Lupo's presence could be better for you than an apple a day.

Dog owners worldwide enjoy longer lifespans on average, and the company a canine provides makes those extra years of life more gratifying. Positive health attributes dogs afford remain a constant for young and elderly alike, including weight maintenance, reduced blood pressure, and improved cardiovascular fitness. The benefits of owning a dog are not limited to the physical. People with pets enjoy superior self-esteem, while suffering less depression due to an optimistic mindset that companionship with animals engenders. The variety of sizes, temperaments, exercise needs, and breed peculiarities make dogs as versatile as a Swiss Army knife, and thus accessible to all.

The health advantages a dog offers is not restricted to ownership. Canines are employed in therapeutic situations at hospitals, prisons, nursing homes, and schools to offer stress management.

Medical and academic institutions proffer statistics that support a notion of the dog owner as a more active and happier individual. A 2007 study by Queen's University Belfast compiled and analyzed global research data, confirming the science behind dog aficionados leading healthier lives. Published in the British Journal of Health Psychology, their analysis stressed regular walks were only part of the equation. Committee head Dr. Deborah Wells intimates social climate plays as important a role. "The ownership of a dog can also lead to increases in physical activity and facilitate the development of social contacts, which may enhance both physiological and psychological human health in a more indirect manner," she said.

Studies in Germany, Australia, and China point to dog ownership as sound public policy. An examination of Chinese women (men were excluded) reported increased exercise, fewer doctor visits, and diminished use of sick days at work when a dog is present in the home. Australian and German dog owners were found to use free governmental health services less than the general populace. Pet owners in those countries made approximately 12 to 15 percent fewer annual doctor visits than their pet-less peers. German pet owners spent 32 percent fewer nights in a hospital. The benefits appeared particularly strong for elderly people, the population group with the worst constitutions and heaviest use of health services. The economic benefit was substantial, approximating savings in health expenditures of $5.59 billion for Germany and $3.86 billion for Australia annually.

As with everything in life, age can be a relevant or limiting factor to owning a dog. However, the positives of dog ownership seem to outweigh negligible and manageable negatives. Surveys targeted at pet owners 60 years and older showed less stress and loneliness, better nutrition, and a stronger focus on the present. Seniors walking a dog enjoy a boost in parasympathetic nervous system activity, the region of the brain that supports calm and rest in the body. Activities in the care-taking role of a dog give older individuals a sense of responsibility and purpose that contributes to their overall well-being. An often cited but small-scale study of 92 elderly people hospitalized for coronary ailments, showed that within a year 11 of the 29 patients without pets passed away, compared to only three of the 52 who owned a pet.

Dog-given benefits are not limited to the physical; their stimulus on a person's mental contentment is equally discernible. Psychologists at Miami University and St. Louis University found the emotional benefits pet owners receive from animal companions could be the equal of a human friendship. They factored variables such as depression, loneliness, illness, self-esteem, and activity levels, finding that participants with pets scored far better overall, enjoying measurably higher self-esteem and less loneliness. The researchers hastened to point out that study subjects were not stereotypical dog or cat loners. "We repeatedly observed evidence that people who enjoyed greater benefits from their pets also were closer to other important people in their lives," they wrote, "and received more support from them, not less."

And the health advantages a dog offers are not restricted to ownership either. Canines are widely employed in therapeutic situations at hospitals, psychiatric venues, prisons, nursing homes, and schools to offer temporary stress management. Dogs are increasingly present in waiting rooms -- a practice that a study from the University of Pittsburgh confirmed reduced annoyance and irritation in medical patients. Their number showed a wandering pooch reduces pain (23 percent) and emotional distress (32 percent) among patients. This is a logical extension of other, more accepted, roles that therapy-dogs provide, such as the well-documented programs that introduce dogs into nursing homes and hospital wards, providing temporary comfort and distraction for patients suffering all form of maladies.

In the past couple of years, a lot of science has focused on the effect dogs have on children with autism. In Canada, Dr. Sonia Lupien co-authored one such study in conjunction with the Université de Montréal. "We found that among most autistic children, levels of stress hormones dropped significantly when a dog became part of the family," she wrote. "In those cases, parents reported dramatic improvements in their child's behavior." The study involved a relatively small sample size of 42 children, but the majority showed significant improvements. "Before having the dog, parents reported an average of 33 problematic behaviors, compared with only 22 when the dog was present," Lupien wrote. This has encouraged other institutions, including the University of Texas, to launch similar studies into the widening use of "Autism Dogs" (a recognized category of Service Dog) in that beleaguered community.

Another therapeutic arena where dogs are found is among traumatized military veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. The popular image is of a dog aiding a physically disabled veteran, retrieving dropped items, opening and closing doors, turning light switches on or off, carrying items, or alerting someone in case of an emergency. These dogs, by nature, lend their masters a friend and positive mindset too. Now, new breeds are trained specifically for veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. They become skilled at spotting signs of stress, nervousness, or angst, responding by licking, cuddling, or demanding to be petted. The dogs refocus attention to themselves, coaxing veterans out of their consuming anxiety and making them aware of the temporary fixation. The heartening stories of these special dogs are legion.

I find myself to be anecdotal evidence. Every day at noon, Sultan, a black Labrador, fetches me (including weekends, refusing to acknowledge the concept of a day off) for a daily walk. At that point, I dutifully stop whatever I am doing to indulge in an invigorating break outdoors for my body and mind. The walk usually lasts 30 minutes, encompassing hills and the occasional rabbit or squirrel chase. The routine has become my reset button, and I return to my desk refreshed by a sense of serenity only afforded by nature.

Even if scientific proof were lacking, people intuitively understand the benefits dogs have on their human companions. As author and essayist Gene Hill insightfully quipped, "Whoever said you can't buy happiness forgot little puppies."

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Martin Mulcahey is a freelance writer and researcher based in Colorado.

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