The Secret Health Benefits of Having a Dog

Here are the science-proven health-benefits of canine companionship—beyond the instant joy.

Little dog with owner spend a day at the park playing and having funShutterstock / Branislav Nenin
Shutterstock / Branislav Nenin

Dogs drag humans from burning buildings. They hunt with them, for food and contraband. They protect their humans from danger. Canine love is what most love should strive for: It is both tender and fierce. If you’re on Team Dog, you already know why pups are the absolute best. Dogs help you get outside (even before you brew that first cup of coffee) to greet the day. You catch more sunrises and sunsets as a result. Dogs help you appreciate the fundamental pleasures in life: softness against the skin, meeting another living creature’s eyes with mutual joy, and the pure exhilaration of being outdoors. As if you needed more reasons to love your canine BFF, here are just a few research-backed perks you might have missed.

1. You’ll Get More Exercise

Anyone who has dragged herself out of the apartment at 6 a.m., on rainy days, and multiple times on a lazy Saturday will tell you: As pet owners, we get more exercise than ever. A small study published in the BMC Public Health journal found that older dog owners (study participants were 65 or older) walked 22 minutes more than their dogless peers. Dog owners in the study took an additional 2,700 steps each day on average. These pet owners were also consistently walking at a moderate intensity, which has been shown to lower the risk of high blood pressure, high cholesterol and diabetes, according to the American Heart Association.

2. You’ll Feel Less Lonely

One of the big perks of dog ownership is the constant companionship. After a long day at the office, there’s always someone eagerly waiting for you to return home. A small study published in The Journals of Gerontology examined the effectiveness of animal-assisted therapy in long-term care facilities. The results seem to support the loneliness-diminishing magic of dogs. In the study, two groups of residents in long-term care received either one or three animal-assisted therapy sessions weekly. A third group had no interaction with dogs. The study results indicate even a single 30-minute session weekly can help reduce loneliness.

3. You’ll Get a Boost of Oxytocin

When you stare into your dog’s eyes, you feel bursts of maternal love. Turns out sustained eye contact with your pooch provides a boost of oxytocin—the love hormone—which plays a crucial role in mother-infant relationships. The best news: Your dog feels it, too. Research conducted in Japan and published in Science Magazine established that mutual gazing promotes an “oxytocin-mediated positive loop” that helps stimulate human-dog bonding. In the study, a 30-minute interaction produced a significant increase of oxytocin concentrations in the urine of dog-and-owner pairs.

4. You’ll Get Support When You Need it Most

Animals, especially dogs, can give you support when you need it most. Dogs can provide the social support that counts when it comes to making a positive behavioral change such as healthy weight loss, according to an analysis by The American Heart Association. Dogs provide their owners with motivation and company on walks, helping to reduce inhibitions. In a 1980 study on the role of effects of social support (and isolation) on the survival rates of heart-attack patients, it was found that dog owners had a better survival rate than patients without pets. Nearly 15 years later, researchers were able to replicate the results in a study that indicated dog owners are significantly less likely to die within a year than coronary patients who don’t own dogs.

5. You May Sleep Better

Catching zzz’s in the same room with your canine companion can help you sleep, finds a small study published in Mayo Clinic Proceedings. Researchers evaluated the sleep of 40 healthy middle-aged volunteers who shared bedrooms with their dogs. The study found that “human sleep efficiency was better if the dog was in the room but not on the bed.” The sleep quality of volunteers who shared a bed with one adult dog wasn’t that much lower, however.

Oncologist and palliative care physician Edward T. Creagan says he always writes the names of cancer patients’ pets in their files because talking about a beloved dog (or cat) is the quickest way to make someone smile. In a video uploaded by The Mayo Clinic, he talks about the health benefits of holding an animal or petting a dog. It’s a long list, including decreased blood pressure, lowered pulse, lessened depression and a deep sense of peace and tranquility. Pets are truly medicine for the soul. Give your pup a squeeze…doctor’s orders!

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Joann Pan
Joann Pan is a content creator based in New York City. Her work has appeared on Oprah.com, Mashable.com, The Huffington Post and more.