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This post is by Anthony Savage of Sparta Health

When we’ve had a dog-eat-dog world kind of day, and we feel dog tired or even like we’re in the doghouse, there is nothing better than coming home to a furry welcome from (wo)man’s best friend.  Humans have kept animals as domestic companions for over 12,000 years, with wolf cubs being trained by our ancestors to live within the tribe.  With close to half of all UK households now owning a pet, and 26% of households  owning a dog[1], it’s safe to say that Brits are animal lovers.  But is owning a pet, and specifically a dog good for our wellbeing? And if so, how? 

In recent years’ there has been plenty of scientific interest in studying human-animal interactions (HAI), that is, the ways in which human animal relationships can influence the health and wellbeing of both parties.  Studies have examined both pet ownership and the use of animals within education and therapy settings: commonly referred to as animal-assisted interventions (AAI).  There is plenty of evidence that HAI may have a multitude of positive effects on humans[2].   It’s common place now for schools to include a therapy dog within lessons and pastoral sessions, and it’s been shown that reading to a dog is an effective way to boost children’s literacy skills and confidence[3].  Assistance dogs make a huge difference to the lives of countless people:  not only can dogs support those with visual or auditory impairment, they can also sense imminent seizures in those with epilepsy and provide an invaluable early warning.  It’s commonly recognised that having a dog can help people to take exercise and also provides companionship and company, acting as a buffer to the negative effects of loneliness.  According to the research there are other physical and psychological benefits in addition to these.  Even just being in the presence of a companion animal is associated with health benefits, including improvements in mental, social, and physiological health status[4].  Let’s take a closer look.    

Owning a pet has been shown to offer some protection from developing Cardiovascular Disease (CVD) with studies pointing to reduced blood pressure for pet owners[5].   There is even evidence that dog owners were more likely to continue to live after cardiovascular-related health problems than canine free counterparts[6].  It’s unclear exactly what the mechanics for this are.  However, increased exercise taken by dog owners is a common cited health benefit, as is the reduction in the stress hormone cortisol in people who stroke or pet an animal[7]. Less stress is ultimately better for our blood pressure.   

And it’s not just physical health that can be boosted through pet ownership.  The evidenced based 5 Ways to Wellbeing model[8] includes the recommendation that finding ways to give to others is good for us.  Pets rely on us to faithfully give them care and attention: food, shelter and companionship, benefitting us in the process.  In addition, dog ownership has been shown to reduce depression[9].  Again, it’s thought those increased exercise levels and the ways in which dog walking makes it more likely that we connect with other people we meet as part of that walk might be behind these positive results.   

Another benefit worth exploring relates to the role of the neurotransmitter oxytocin.  Commonly called the “cuddle hormone”, it supports human bonding and gives us a sense of love, empathy and connection.  Dog owners have been found to have higher levels of oxytocin in their blood when they interact with their pet[10].  However, it is not a one-way-street.  Dogs present with significantly increased levels of oxytocin when they spend time with us too[11].  So not only is it true to say that the UK is a nation of dog lovers, it turns out dogs love us too! 

Of course, the decision to get a pet needs to be based on more than simply a desire to reap the wellbeing benefits, but if you think a dog could be a welcome addition to your household, you might just be barking up the right tree to expect some wellbeing benefits as a result! 

About Anthony Savage 

Anthony Savage is the Medical Services Manager at Sparta Health, having joined the team in 2017 and is responsible for the overall operational delivery of our high quality services to our clients. He has a solid background in workplace physiology, as well over 12 years of delivering, and holding senior management positions, for leading injury and condition management providers.

He is known for his innovative approach in his design and execution of services and his ability to build enduring relationships.

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