Every dog lover knows that whoever coined the phrase "human's best friend" to describe the animal was spot-on — dogs can improve our health and lives in a multitude of ways. Growing up, I owned the sweetest, cutest (albeit not the brightest) golden retriever in the world (not that I'm biased or anything). She may not have had the highest IQ, but her emotional intelligence was astounding and she could always tell when I was anxious or having a hard time; her mere presence eased my anxiety and I looked forward to seeing her every single day. And I'm not alone in finding dogs to be a great asset to mental health — there's a reason that after tragedies like Sandy Hook, the Boston Marathon bombing, and the Orlando mass shooting, emotional support dogs are sent to the towns and the cities that were affected.
Sure, dogs are fun, loving companions — but there are also a number of unexpected health benefits we gain from having dogs. Whether they ease our anxiety on a daily basis, detect when we are suffering from a life-threatening illness, or simply get us outside and socializing, dogs improve our quality of life in more ways than one.
Here are five ways our canine friends benefit our health:
1. They Decrease Stress Levels
Comfort dogs and emotional support dogs are an invaluable resource for people who have recently experienced a tragedy or a traumatic experience. But they aren't helpful only on the worst days of our lives — the physical companionship of a dog has been shown to decrease blood pressure and reduce stress.
Studies have found that individuals who own dogs show lower heart rates and lower blood pressure. Additionally, dog owners tend to be in better physical health because they need to take care of their pets and get them out to exercise each day, regardless of how stressed out they are. And, of course, exercise is the number one way to stay physically and emotionally healthy.
2. They Decrease Depression
A 2006 study from the University of Portsmouth found that caring for a dog reduces the risk of a depressive episode. Taking a dog for daily walks can help ward off feelings of depression and loneliness — and getting out of the house with their pet allows dog owners to meet and interact with others during their strolls. The participants in the study also noted that, when they were having bad days, they felt better once they went outside with their dog. Of course, severe depression can't be treated by a dog alone — it's still necessary to seek professional help. But, as someone who has experienced depression and anxiety, I can definitely say that the presence of my dog was extremely comforting on more occasions than I can count.
3. They Lower The Risk Of Allergies
When kids grow up with dogs, their allergy risk decreases and their immune systems are stronger. In fact, when pregnant women live with a dog, it reduces their child's chances of developing allergies. Exposure to dogs during infancy, especially around the time of birth, strengthens a child's immune system and makes them less vulnerable to a variety of allergic diseases. By their third birthdays, kids with dogs are less likely to suffer from atopic dermatitis and wheezing compared to their peers who don't own dogs. (Seriously, is there anything dogs can't do?)
4. They Can Detect Cancer & Other Illnesses
Research has shown that dogs are adept at detecting cancer, low blood sugar, and even impending seizures. There's no scientific explanation as to why canines are able to sense that their owner is about to have a seizure and therefore there's no way to "train" them how to do so. However, Jennifer Arnold, the founder of a Canine Assistants program in Georgia, reported to WebMD that approximately nine out of 10 service dogs she places develop the ability to detect an upcoming seizure within a year of placement. Arnold explains:
“Dogs alert in different ways ... Most of them become visibly distressed in some way. They will start licking their person or pawing at them. It’s extremely common for the dog to tug their person toward the ground, as if they want them to lie down.”
Dogs have also been known to detect cancer due to their keen sense of smell — and the same applies for diabetes. They can sense when their owner's blood sugar has dropped, and they're able to identify this even before the person does.
5. They Help Us Be More Social
For those of us who tend to be a bit on the shy side, having a dog is a great way to meet and socialize with others. People tend to approach those with adorable dogs (or, in my case, chase the cute dog down the street and ask if I can pet it) and it's a great conversation starter. Furthermore, taking your dog to a pet store or dog park gives you the opportunity to chat and mingle with people who you have at least one thing in common with. A study conducted by Warwick University found that 40 percent of dog owners reported making friends more easily as the result of having a canine companion.
So, our dogs are way more than our best friends — they're the ones who can comfort us during rough times, sense when we're physically ill, and help improve our social lives. Plus, looking at those adorable faces each day is sure to lift anyone's mood.