Canine Corner

The human-animal bond

Can My Dog Make Me Healthier?

Your dog may improve your heart health and reduce stress.

One of the newest trends in medical research focuses on the relationship between people and their pets and the effect this has on their physical wellbeing. Your dog can help to tame a stress response that places your health at risk. The medical recognition of the significance of the human-animal bond and its influence on human psychological health is fairly recent.

The research linking heart problems to psychological stress is impressive. For example, a study recently published in the International Journal of Epidemiology involved 8 years of testing. It was done in the Whitehall district of London, and involved a huge test group (73 percent of all civil servants working in 20 government departments). A variety of stress factors, such as marriage or other family problems, work-related issues, and monetary concerns were considered. The effects of stress were even worse than had been anticipated. Those men who were under psychological stress were 83 percent more likely to have coronary heart disease. Women in the psychologically stressed group had a still-frightening 51 percent increase in heart problems.

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Another larger scale study conducted in Japan and recently reported in the scientific journal Circulation involved more than 73,000 people aged 40 to 79. People who feel stressed on a day-to-day basis have an increased likelihood of dying from stroke or heart disease. Probably the most important finding was that these effects even had an impact on the lowest risk groups (women who do not have any other risk factors). These stressed-out women were more than twice as likely to die of heart complications than their more mellow peers over the time period studied.

dog canine pet health benefits heart stress longevity coronary
So what does this have to do with your dog? The strong connection between humans and animals has become a subject of serious psychological research. Scientific evidence about the health benefits of such a relationship was first published about 30 years ago when a psychologist--Alan Beck of Purdue University and a psychiatrist, Aaron Katcher of the University of Pennsylvania--measured what happens physically when a person pets a friendly and familiar dog. They found that the person's blood pressure lowered, his heart rate slowed, breathing became more regular and muscle tension relaxed-all signs of reduced stress.

One study published in the Journal of Psychosomatic Medicine not only confirmed these effects, but showed changes in blood chemistry demonstrating a lower amount of stress-related hormones such as cortisol. These effects seem to be automatic, they do not require any conscious efforts or training on the part of the stressed individual. Perhaps most amazingly, these positive psychological effects are achieved faster-after only five to 24 minutes of interacting with a dog-than the result from taking most stress-relieving drugs. Compare this to some of the Prozac-type drugs used to deal with stress and depression, which alter the levels of the neurotransmitter serotonin in the body and can take weeks to show any positive effects. Furthermore, the benefits that build up over this long course of medication can be lost with only few missed doses of the drug. Petting a dog has a virtually immediate effect and can be done at any time.

A large data base now confirms that pets are good for the health of your heart and may increase the quality of your life and your longevity. The benefits are not just short-term-they reduce your stress beyond the period of time that your pet is present-and seem to have a cumulative effect. For example, one study of 5,741 people conducted in Melbourne, Australia, found that pet owners had lower levels of blood pressure and cholesterol than non-pet-owners, even when both groups had the same poor life styles involving smoking and high-fat diets.

A fascinating study, presented at the American Heart Association Scientific Conference, demonstrated how the addition of a pet to your lifestyle can help. Researchers used a group of male and female stockbrokers, who were already beginning to show the effects of stress and were candidates for medication to lower their blood pressure. The researchers first evaluated the brokers' blood pressure under stressful conditions by giving the research participants speeded numerical tasks and asking them to role-play a situation in which they had to talk their way out of an awkward position. In response to these stressful tasks, their average blood pressure shot up to 184/129 mm of mercury (any blood pressure of 140/90 mm of mercury or more is considered high).

Each of the stockbrokers then was prescribed the same medication, and half of them also agreed to get a dog or a cat for a pet. Six months later the researchers called them back and gave them additional stress tests. Those stockbrokers who had acquired a pet were allowed to keep the pet with them when they took their stress tests and showed a rise in blood pressure that was only half as large as the brokers who were only treated with the medication.

Pets can actually help even if you have started to show evidence of heart problems. In an intriguing study published by researcher Erika Friedmann in the American Journal of Cardiology, researchers followed more than 400 patients after they were released from the hospital after having a heart attack. One year later the pet owners were 8.6 times more likely to be alive than those in the non-pet owning group. Thus dogs seem to improve your longevity and survival.

 In the end, it seems that dogs may be a more pleasant and effective way of dealing with stress and coronary problems associated with prolonged stress, then either drugs or various therapies. Your pet dog may well be Prozac on paws.

Stanley Coren is the author of many books including: Born to Bark, The Modern Dog, Why Do Dogs Have Wet Noses? The Pawprints of History, How Dogs Think, How To Speak Dog, Why We Love the Dogs We Do, What Do Dogs Know? The Intelligence of Dogs, Why Does My Dog Act That Way? Understanding Dogs for Dummies, Sleep Thieves, The Left-hander Syndrome

 

Copyright SC Psychological Enterprises Ltd. May not be reprinted or reposted without permission

 

Stanley Coren, Ph.D., F.R.S.C., is a professor of psychology at the University of British Columbia.

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