The Social and Health Benefits of Dogs in Society

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Dogs are present in almost all human settings, and many share the human home as well. For some, they replace the children who have grown and moved away or perhaps were never born, and for others, they are playmates for the children still at home. In the United States, more than half of the families with a dog also have children at home. At the very least, for some people, dogs afford increased opportunities to meet other people. We are beginning to understand this complex bond between pets and people; two species with the common goal of surviving and enjoying life together (Beck, 1999; Beck and Katcher, 2003, 1996; Beck and Meyers, 1996).

People with good human contact are healthier than those who are isolated from others (Lynch, 1977, 2000). Because pet animals, especially dogs, are perceived as members of the family, pet ownership is one way people can be protected from the ravages of loneliness (Beck and Katcher, 2003, 1996; Katcher and Beck, 1986). Unlike talking to other humans, people experience a decrease of blood pressure when talking to pets, indicating that they are more relaxed with them than with people (Katcher et al., 1983; Baun et al., 1984; Wilson, 1991). Even in the presence of unfamiliar dogs, people experience a temporary decrease in blood pressure (Friedmann et al., 1983).

In 1980, there was the first epidemiological report documenting the value of pet ownership. A study of people hospitalized after a heart attack found that 94% of those who happened to own pets were alive after the 1st year compared with 72% of those who did not own any animal. The ownership of any animal correlated with improved survival. A discriminate analysis demonstrated that pet ownership accounted for 2–3% of the variance (Friedmann et al., 1980). While 2–3% may seem small, the impact, considering the frequency of heart disease, is significant and cost effective.

A more recent study of the benefits of interactions with animals found that pet owners had reductions in some common risk factors for cardiovascular disease when compared with non-owners (Anderson et al., 1992). Pet owners had lower systolic blood pressures, plasma cholesterol, and triglyceride values. While pet owners engaged in more exercise, they also ate more meat and ‘take-out’ foods than non-owners, and the socio-economic profiles of the two groups were very similar. It appears that pet ownership may reduce the risk factors associated with cardiovascular disease, possibly for reasons that go beyond simply an association with risk behaviours.

Serpell (1991) reported that dog owners experienced fewer minor health problems and increased the number and duration of their recreational walks. The effects persisted over the 10-month study period and there was no clear explanation for the results. Naturally occurring events in people’s lives are enhanced because of animal companionship. For instance, people walking with their dogs experience more social contact and longer conversations than when walking alone (Johnson et al., 2011; Messent, 1983).

In a study, nearly 1000 non-institutionalized older adult Medicare patients were evaluated prospectively. Those subjects who owned pets appeared to experience less distress and required fewer visits to their physicians than non-owners. While animal ownership generally had value, the most remarkable benefits to health were for those who owned dogs (Siegel, 1990). Most of the people noted that the pets provided them with companionship and a sense of security, and the opportunity for fun/play and relaxation. Animals allowed people to experience bonding. Siegel (1993) suggested that pets have a stress-reducing effect. The elderly often benefit the most from the companionship of animals (Dembicki and Anderson, 1996). Consequently, support has grown for protecting the right of pet ownership for older adults living in the community, and encouraging animal contact for those in long-term nursing home settings. There is continued growing evidence documenting the health benefits of animal interaction (Barker and Wolen, 2008).

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