President Harry Truman once said, “If you want a friend in Washington, D.C., get a dog.” And maybe he was onto something.
The American Heart Association (AHA) just reported that dog owners appear to reduce their risk of cardiovascular disease. But remember, scientists want to know how this works. Not just that it does work.
Why do dog owners reap such terrific health benefits?
Well, the answer may have to do with how dogs evolved. Dogs have some relatively unique characteristics that helped them become “man’s best friend.”
As members of the Canis familiaris species, they descended directly from wolves (Canis lupus). And wolves are unique because they are social carnivores at the top of the food chain.
Typically, animals who occupy the top of the food chain–like bears or big cats–are solitary hunters. It takes a lot of territory to provide enough food to support such large animals.
But wolves are different.
They live and hunt in packs. And that kind of cooperative effort makes them closer to humans than any other large, “top-of-the food-chain” animal. And it may help explain why early humans began living and hunting with semi-domesticated wolves.
Eventually, some of these wolves evolved into domesticated dogs.
This “familiar” relationship with Canis familiaris–first forged thousands of years ago–continues to this day. Russian research shows that among all animals, only dogs will follow a human’s gaze. Or follow where a human is pointing.
Plus, those who work in natural medicine have known of the health benefits of owning dogs for a long time. We even included a chapter on “Animal-Assisted Therapy” in my 2005 textbook on complementary/alternative therapies for cardiovascular disease with Drs. Bill Frishman and Mike Weintraub at New York Medical College.
And as I said earlier, the AHA just issued a report that discovered dog owners appear to benefit from a reduced risk of heart disease.
Of course, you may assume this happens because dog owners go for long walks with their dogs.
Indeed, as I told you yesterday, even short, 15-minute walks after dinner lowers your risk of developing diabetes. But very few people meet their exercising goals. So, it is good health advice to get a dog–for the exercise benefits alone.
But there is more to it than that.
According to the AHA, dog ownership has many psychological and sociological benefits. Just the presence of a dog in your home appears to help lower stress and reduce your heart rate.
Several other studies show that dogs decrease the body’s reaction to stress. Dog owners appear have lower heart rates, lower blood pressure, and fewer adrenalin-like hormones. Dog owners also have modestly lower cholesterol and triglyceride levels. Earlier studies even showed that having a dog increases survival rates in those who actually suffer heart attacks.
In one controlled clinical study, 50 stockbrokers began taking medication to control their high blood pressure. Half of them also adopted a dog. Six months later, the dog owners were markedly calmer under stressful situations.
But stockbrokers and other big city dwellers beware. The researchers found a big difference between dog owners who walked their own dogs versus those who paid others to walk them.
Is it really just the exercise?
The CDC says that pet owners are just as likely to be overweight as people without pets.
No matter what, there are always good reasons to have a dog.
As Webb Pierce sang, “I’m walking the dog, and I’m never blue; I’m walking the dog, I ain’t thinkin’ bout you.”
1. “Animal-Assisted Therapy and Cardiovascular Disease,”Frishman, WH, Weintraub, MI, Micozzi, MS, Complementary and Integrative Therapies for Cardiovascular Disease; 2005: 362-368