The Science Behind Puppy Love
Dogs are considered “man’s best friend” for a very good reason
Here’s something to howl about: Owning a dog may save your life.
Research has found that having a four-legged companion like a dog can lower your risk of heart disease.
According to a Swedish study, individuals living alone who own a dog noticed a significantly reduced risk of suffering from cardiovascular-related death by 36%, while dog owners in a multi-person household saw a decreased risk of cardiovascular death by 15%.
In that same study, dog ownership in a single-person household was linked to a 33% reduction of mortality from any cause compared to non-owners. The risk factor was 11% lower in multi-person households.
Various factors may contribute to these results.
For one, dogs provide strong social support and promote feelings of greater well-being in their owners. The calming effects brought on by those big puppy eyes and wagging tail have been shown to decrease blood pressure, therefore lowering the risk of heart disease in individuals without high blood pressure.
Dogs also provide companionship.
As participants who lived alone benefited the most from owning a dog, study author Tove Fall pointed to the “pack” function of a dog, noting that “a dog may stand in as an important family member in the single households.”
“Dogs are amazing companions – humans and dogs have more than 30,000 years of co-evolution, so dogs are really in tune with our emotions and intentions,” says Heather Tamaye, Child Life Services supervisor of Pediatric Services at Kapiolani Medical Center for Women & Children.
As the facilitator of Kapiolani's Hospital Facility Dog Program, Tamaye witnesses first-hand the positive impact a four-legged friend can make on a person's health. Part of her role includes working side by side with Ruby, Kapiolani's Chief Canine Officer and full-time hospital facility dog who works with pediatric patients, as well as their families, to help them get well.
“Ruby’s calm, nurturing presence has visible impacts on patients,” Tamaye says. “We can enter a room in which a patient is in pain, anxious, or just having a rough day and all of that is melted away with each pet of her coat.
"Dogs can tell what we want by our tone, volume and body language. Also, just like I might yawn when I see you yawn, dogs can be victims of contagious yawning too!" she adds. "They truly have become an integral part of our lives and our families."
Another important factor in preventing heart disease is exercise, and dog owners generally get more physical activity than their canine-less counterparts.
In particular, owners of hunting breeds (think Labradors, retrievers, setters and beagles) experienced an additional reduction in their risk of heart disease. This is likely due to the physical exercise these dogs require compared to their less-active counterparts.
This isn’t the first study to examine the connection between dog ownership and heart health. Previous findings suggest kids who grow up with dogs have a reduced risk of health issues like asthma, allergies and eczema. The thought is that people who live with dogs gain extra exposure to microbes, which helps to boost their immune systems.
The American Heart Association also has done its own review of past research and concluded “pet ownership, particularly dog ownership, is probably associated with decreased cardiovascular risk.”
“Just the presence of a dog can improve our moods. We feel good when we’re with a dog because our body releases more of feel-good chemicals like oxytocin, prolactin and dopamine. Also, cortisol, which causes stress, goes down,” Tamaye says. “Having such a great companion who can help us feel better when we’re sad and love us unconditionally can do great things for our hearts and our health!”
More studies need to be done to understand the connection between man and dog and how this bond may benefit our health.
In the meantime, if you have a dog – or any pet, for that matter – show him some extra love. It’ll be good for both your hearts.
Published on: February 13, 2023