For hundreds of years, humankind has searched for that elusive fountain of youth — a mystical “magic bullet” that could help restore health, vitality, and a general sense of well-being. Modern culture, with its right-now reliance on instant deliverables, has elevated expectations even further. Today’s ads tout a plethora of pills and potions that supposedly deliver immediate results … with very little engagement on our part.
The Harvard Medical School Special Health Report entitled Get Healthy, Get a Dog wants us to understand, first and foremost, that canines do not belong in this category.
But this comprehensive new 50-page educational resource also suggests something appealingly intriguing: that humans and dogs share a proven connection that can often function as a beneficial two-way street. In other words, the very type of involvement and activity that a dog needs to thrive — fresh air, regular walks, ear scratches, sufficient sleep, and consistent connection with fellow pack members — creates a sort of “wellness roadmap” that can actually improve the health and vitality of both the dog and her human.
Get Healthy, Get a Dog is not itself an actual research study, but rather a summarized examination of multiple detailed studies over time. And what those studies demonstrate — collectively, and in no uncertain terms — is that dog ownership can have a measurably positive effect on mood, mindfulness, general wellness, cardiovascular health, weight loss, social interaction, and even potential lifespan. The resulting picture suggests that canines have earned the title “human’s best friend” for very good reasons.
“We didn’t want to create the impression that simply getting a dog automatically leads to improved health,” says medical editor Elizabeth Pegg Frates, MD, who oversees the Lifestyle Medicine Interest Group at Harvard Medical School (HMS), teaches a college course on lifestyle medicine at the Harvard Extension School, and directs Wellness Programs at the Spaulding Stroke Research and Recovery Institute, an HMS affiliate. “It’s, in fact, the relationship that delivers the benefits — we, as pet owners, need to play an active role. To date, numerous pet owners have expressed enormous gratitude that someone has finally put into print what they’ve realized all along.”
Indeed, for those of us who live with one or more canines, odds are we’ve experienced this precise dynamic firsthand. In my family, we feel instantly encouraged when we receive that overjoyed, tail-wagging welcome home after a hard day at the office. Those multiple daily walks and jogs around the block have helped us tone up — while introducing us to a veritable special-interest group of fellow canine lovers in the area.
But there’s always that one friend or family member who seems to cast doubt. My feline-loving former roommate constantly wonders if I appreciate the “considerable attention needs” of canines vs. cats. My extra-tidy great aunt asks if I understand exactly how much “muck and grime” is tracked through the house by the average dog paw — a figure which, I suppose, would normally be multiplied by four.
Well, yes and yes; and I suppose that’s precisely the point. I fully understand that “playing an active role” often means going for walks in the driving rain, participating in prolonged games of fetch with a tattered yet treasured tennis ball, rushing outside barefoot in a snowstorm to lock the back gate, and shuffling through cold, dewy grass in a pair of old flip-flops while certain cold-nosed companions decide if they should relieve themselves here, here, or over there. Yet I’ve come to understand that I tend to walk farther, eat healthier, and push just a little bit harder every day due to the simple yet powerful perception that at least one other living, breathing creature truly depends on me.
“Sometimes, people find that their dog becomes a vital reason to take better care of themselves,” notes Dr. Lisa Moses, VMD, DACVIM, who oversees pain and palliative care medicine at MSPCA Angell Animal Medical Center, a leading Boston-based veterinary hospital. “If it’s about the person themselves, it may feel self-oriented — but if it’s about being there for the dog, it’s perfectly appropriate.”
Get Healthy, Get a Dog is actually a collaboration between HMS and Angell Animal Medical Center, and it’s divided into two distinct sections to reflect that relational “two-way street” dynamic. Half of the report is focused on what dogs can do for humans, while the other half outlines what we humans should do for our dogs. Dr. Frates addresses the former, while co-editor Dr. Moses covers the latter. The canine-care section includes segments on exercise, training, and good nutrition, while making a persuasive case for pet rescue and adoption over pet-store purchase.
“We wanted to promote the benefits from both sides of the leash,” stresses Dr. Moses. “This is especially important for people who don’t currently have a dog, but may be considering dog ownership. A human-canine relationship can yield some amazing advantages — but potential owners need to mentally prepare themselves. It’s important to realistically recognize there’s a genuine, sustained commitment involved.”
For those willing to make that commitment, however, an abundance of research suggests that the rewards are almost startlingly substantial. Below, just a brief overview detailing a few of the findings outlined in the report:
To date, multiple studies have explored the link between canines and human exercise. Some have directly compared dog owners with non-owners. Those with dogs were found to be fitter, thinner, and less likely to have chronic health conditions, including high blood pressure and diabetes. According to the American Heart Association (AHA), a dog actually appears to help those who are obese overcome embarrassment about exercising or doing physical activity in public. In 2013, the AHA went so far as to add that pet ownership represents “a reasonable strategy for reducing heart-disease risk.”
Consistent with this stance, a study of almost 6,000 men and women in Australia discovered that dog owners of both genders had lower triglyceride levels than non-owners, and that male dog owners also had lower total cholesterol levels. A separate study examined dog ownership and its impact on high blood pressure more directly. Thirty people with borderline hypertension were randomly assigned to either adopt a dog immediately or to adopt at a future date. After five months, those who had already adopted their dogs displayed significant declines in systolic pressure.
Ample evidence suggests that dogs help humans feel less isolated. Two large, long-term studies followed people from childhood to old age, and found that those who were more engaged with others — regardless of whether those others happened to be humans or animals — lived longer. As Dr. Moses points out, it’s possible that having a sustained sense of purpose and connection helped contribute to this outcome.
There’s a naturally occurring hormone called oxytocin, otherwise known as the “bliss,” “love,” or “bonding” hormone. When released into the bloodstream, oxytocin stirs positive feelings. It also helps thwart depression and inhibit the release of the stress hormone cortisol. According to a recent study cited in the report, owning a canine companion can be akin to having an unlimited supply of oxytocin, essentially on demand. Evidently, pet parents often get an automatic oxytocin infusion merely by petting their dog, laughing at a pup’s silly antics, even by looking into their furry friend’s soulful and trusting eyes. Meanwhile, cortisol secretion is often moderated on both the giving and receiving end.
According to a Tufts University study, children learn important life skills from early bonding with the family dog — and that bonding can lead to stronger human connections later in life. The study also found that kids who’ve established an emotional connection with one or more dogs have greater empathy, feel more confident, and generally seem to be more comfortable in social settings. Several other psychological studies have concluded that college-age students tend to experience a greater sense of supportive stress relief from their dogs than they do from parents or siblings. A separate group of adult test subjects were found to be able to ward off a case of the blues simply by thinking about their canine companions.
Several indicators suggest that dog ownership carries special benefits for older people. The report cites a year-long Canadian study that found elderly dog owners more capable of performing daily activities, such as feeding and dressing themselves. “This could certainly be due to the fact that, by caring for their canine companions, seniors are reminded to care for themselves as well,” observes Dr. Moses. “The need for regular walks and meals also puts a daily structure in place that may help reinforce human self-care habits.”
Dogs may also represent a viable alternative to yoga or meditation when it comes to being more in the moment. Observing our dogs on walks, car rides, or family trips can remind us to savor the little things. I often find that my dog Maizy, for example, rolls around elatedly in the grass until her canine brother, Grant, can’t resist joining her. Or sometimes she’ll stop during a summer stroll, simply to lie on the warm pavement and incline her face toward the sun. Our dogs help us notice and appreciate tiny details, deepen our connection with nature, and put aside our concerns about tomorrow and our regrets about yesterday. They invite us to be completely present and appreciative, right this very minute.
As people are living longer — many residing alone or without children — both report editors conclude that dogs are more important than ever before in our society.
“Dogs open up an entirely new landscape of compassion,” remarks Dr. Frates. “Plus, when you rescue or adopt from a shelter, there’s the added benefit of knowing that you’ve given that pet a new lease on life.”
“Ironically, this data-driven, electronic world tends to inhibit daily face-to-face connection,” adds Dr. Moses. “But a dog changes all that in a heartbeat.”
Get Healthy, Get a Dog is available as a PDF, a printed report, or both. It may be purchased online here.
Do you have examples of the healthy, positive ways your dog has impacted your life? Please share in the comments!
Read more by Marybeth Bittel:
About the author: Marybeth Bittel is a freelance writer who lives in the Midwest with her wonderful husband, her crazy rescue dog Grant, and her level-headed rescue dog Maizy – all of them Heinz 57 mixed breed types. Marybeth identifies as mostly Italian, so she enjoys feeding family, friends and furkids almost as much as Grant and Maizy enjoy eating. She’s also a marketing communications consultant and former marketing/PR exec. Connect with her on LinkedIn or — to see her latest pet pics (and be careful what you wish for here) — check out her family Instagram feed.