According to a 2016 Gallup poll, 44 percent of Americans own a dog. That is a pretty significant number. In fact, dogs are easily the most popular pet among US pet owners—sorry cat lovers. But what is it that makes dogs so great? Well, they’re fun loving, energetic, make excellent companions and… may actually help you live longer.
A recent Swedish study suggested that owning a dog may be linked to a reduced risk of cardiovascular disease and premature death. According to the study, owning a dog was associated with a 20 percent reduced risk of overall death and a 23 percent reduced riskof dying from cardiovascular disease. The study tracked 3.4 million people over the course of 12 years, including both dog owners and non-dog owners. Interestingly, the effects of dog ownership were most pronounced when subjects lived alone and were the sole caretakers for the dog, as they experienced a 33 percent reduced risk of death.
So what is it that makes dogs so beneficial to our health and our lives? Here are a few theories:
Dogs need exercise as much as we do, but, oftentimes people prioritize their pup’s needs above their own. Many people would more readily take their dog on a walk than walk alone down the block to get some fresh air and take care of themselves. But lucky for us, exercising a dog means exercising yourself, too! It is well established that regular exercise reduces your likelihood of developing cardiovascular disease. A dog may provide irrefutable motivation to get you off the couch and on a walk, which could be saving your life.
Along the same lines, dogs encourage us to get outside more. Being outside reduces stress, can increase vitamin D levels and promotes happiness. It can be easy for us to get lazy and stay snuggled up inside when the weather is less than ideal, but dogs need regular outside access. Our pups encourage us to get outside on a regular basis, which can have a small but significantly healthful impact on overall mood and stress levels.
Having a dog is essentially like consuming a powerful probiotic every single day. Dogs go out in nature, roll in mud and grass, chew on sticks, sniff all sorts of bacteria-ridden substances and then track little microscopic bits of this array of bacteria back into our homes. But that may actually be a good thing. According to the New York Times, “Epidemiological studies show that children who grow up in households with dogs have a lower risk for developing autoimmune illnesses like asthma and allergies — and it may be a result of the diversity of microbes that these animals bring inside our homes.” The wider the spectrum of bacteria we subject ourselves to, the more balanced our own microbiomes will become. Since the microbiome can affect all areas of our health, including the likelihood of developing cardiovascular disease, the long term health benefits of diverse bacterial populations should not be underestimated. Dogs, and other pets, do an incredible job of strengthening our microbiomes, which has a profound impact on our health.
There is something to said for the emotional stability a dog provides. Chronic stress has been linked to increased risk of cardiovascular disease and premature death, which makes it even more significant that dogs are great at reducing our stress and anxiety levels. They are like our little furry therapists—they are always there for us, through good times and bad, and they always love us indiscriminately. The companionship of a dog and a human is one of the purest, most mutually beneficial relationships one can have. It’s pretty powerful.
Of course, just giving your parents a dog doesn’t mean they will necessarily live longer—especially if they aren’t ‘dog people.’ But for those who are, next time you come home to a wagging tail and a wild tongue, be grateful to your pup pal for all the amazing things they bring to your life.