Submitted by Dr. Ankeney for Kaiser Permanente

My two youngest children recently regaled me with a highly cogent slide show presentation, complete with references (informed by Google), on the health benefits of dog ownership. Cute as their little presentation was, they weren’t entirely making things up just to score themselves a family dog.

Numerous studies, some published in peer-reviewed journals, suggest that dog ownership is linked with favorable lipid profiles, lower systemic blood pressure, and improved survival after an acute coronary syndrome (heart attack).

Wait: those benefits just described, aren’t those just the effects of exercise? Are we crediting dogs when we really should just go to spin class?

Yes. True. The problem is that “exercise more, eat less” has inspired about 8 people for every 200,000 (my estimate) who hear the phrase. The CDC says that greater than 70% of Americans are now overweight. More than 50% exercise less than we should (at least 2 and ½ hours per week). In short, we all need to exercise more but find little motivation to do it.

Dogs help with that. They need to be walked or run. Every day. Ideally 2-3 times a day. Strangely, what so many people won’t do for themselves, they will do for an adorable puppy. I recently had to come to work on a dark, cold Saturday morning. I passed a number of people in the 6am drizzle. All looked miserable. All were walking a dog (full disclosure: one dog-less ultrarunner went blazing by, happier than all of us). Still, the non-dog owners were almost certainly still cuddled up blissfully in their warm beds. I can’t blame the people in their beds, but it’s probable that the dog-walkers are the ones with better cholesterol.

This info isn’t just entirely observational, either. For example, data from an online survey of 5253 Japanese adults revealed that after controlling for age, sex, and socioeconomic status, dog owners engaged in more walking and physical activity than non owners, and were 54% more likely to obtain the recommended level of physical activity too. An Australian study that controlled for sociodemographic, neighborhood, social environmental, and intrapersonal factors reported that dog owners engaged in more minutes per week of physical activity (322.4 versus. 267.1) and walking (150.3 versus 110.9) and were 57% more likely to meet the recommended level of physical activity than non owners.  The list of studies goes on, with a summary statement by the American Heart Association agreeing that dog ownership is likely to benefit cardiovascular health.

Dogs also probably help protect against allergies too. This is counterintuitive, since dogs are, basically, pretty gross much of the time. They drink water from strange places, dig stuff, chew and eat all kinds of revolting things and let’s not even delve into all the things (and places) they lick. Frankly, ew.

But it’s looking like we might be hand-sanitizering ourselves toward worsening allergies and weak, over-active immune systems. Dogs bring microscopic dirt and crud into our worlds, and our immune systems learn to deal with them, effectively down-regulating their “hyperactivity” to worldly germs.

In a recent study of infants with dogs living in the home, the babies were less likely to show evidence of pet allergies — 19% vs. 33%. They also were less likely to have eczema, and had higher levels of some immune system blood markers — a sign of stronger immune system activity.

The lead author of the study, Dr. James E. Gern, MD, is a pediatrician at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He published his findings in the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology. His basic conclusion: Dogs are dirty animals, and babies who have greater exposure to dirt and allergens have a stronger immune systems.

There are studies showing that people with chronic diseases like AIDS are less likely to become depressed if they own a dog (the protective effect increases the more emotionally connected they are with the dog). People with Ahzheimer’s have been observed to have lower anxiety scores and fewer emotional outbursts when a dog is in the home, or they interact with a service dog regularly.

That said, there is little strong evidence in favor of emotional support animals, and all recommending organizations advise against obtaining a dog as a form of medical therapy. Owning a dog is a big undertaking and responsibility, of course. Which is exactly what I said to my kids after their impressive presentation.

But in the end, who do you think won out? The curmudgeonly parents, or the eager kids, ready to attend to their pets every need from now ‘till eternity?

I’ll let you figure it out!


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