Unleashed: The Healing Power of Dogs
“Who rescued whom?”
They’re already considered best friends, trusty companions and beloved members of the family. Now add to the dog’s list of accomplishments, heart healer, exercise coach, and mood enhancer, and the answer to the question above, often used by rescue organizations, becomes even more meaningful. There is new a body of research that goes beyond the anecdotal charms of dog ownership to provide some increased evidence of its health benefits.
The impact on patients with cardiovascular disease (CVD) was initially noted by the American Heart Association in 2013 after an examination of studies reporting beneficial effects of dog ownership, including increased physical activity, favorable lipid profiles, lower systemic blood pressure and stress levels, and improved survival after a heart attack. The AHA’s measured conclusion then was that dog ownership “may be reasonable for reduction in CVD risk,” and further research was recommended.
Late in 2019, a meta-analysis of studies, including data from 3.8 million patients, further bolstered the concept that dog ownership can play a significant role in reducing CVD risk factors by alleviating social isolation, improving physical activity and lowering blood pressure. According to the study, compared to non-owners, dog owners experienced a 24% reduced risk in all-cause mortality, 31% reduction in mortality due to cardiovascular-related issues and 65% reduced risk of mortality after a heart attack.
The AHA noted that while the non-randomized studies can’t conclusively “prove” that owning a dog leads directly to reduced mortality among heart attack and stroke survivors, “the robust findings are certainly suggestive of this” and set the stage for additional exploration.
“The results were very positive,” affirmed researcher Caroline Kramer, MD. “The next step would be an interventional study to evaluate cardiovascular outcomes after adopting a dog and the social and psychological benefits of dog ownership.”
A dog owner herself, she added, “Adopting Romeo [her miniature Schnauzer] has increased my steps and physical activity each day, and filled my daily routine with joy and unconditional love.”
As compelling as the statistics are, researchers emphasize that dog adoption should never be done for the primary purpose of reducing CVD risk. The long-term commitment and lifestyle changes involved in dog ownership must be fully understood and accepted.
Consider these questions:
• Do I have time to care for and clean up after the dog?
• What type of environment does the dog need to thrive?
• How large will the dog get and how much exercise will it need?
• What is the dog’s life span, and can I commit to caring for it throughout its life?
• How much will veterinary care cost?
The healing power of dogs extends well beyond the home as their value in helping decrease pain, stress and anxiety and aid recovery in people coping with a range of health problems is increasingly recognized. Therapy dogs provide comfort to nursing home residents, hospice patients, prisoners, children coping with trauma, and veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), among others. The field of animal-assisted therapy is growing rapidly, as seen in the success of Mayo Clinic’s Caring Canines program, now in its 10th year. More than a dozen registered therapy dogs make their daily “rounds” of hospital rooms and clinic waiting areas.
“If someone is struggling with something, dogs know how to sit there and be loving,” researcher Dr. Ann Berger explained in the National Institute of Health News. “Their attention is focused on the person all the time.”