During the early days of the pandemic, more than 23 million American households—that’s almost one in five nationwide—adopted a pet.
Even President Biden adopted a new dog, named Commander.
And this trend certainly makes a lot of sense.
For one, we were all stuck at home with more free time to care for—and train—a new pet. (Though, I can’t speak for President Biden.)
Second, these skyrocketing adoption rates likely reflected a deep yearning for comfort—and companionship—during a terrible, stressful, and lonely period in American history. And research shows that adopting a pet supports your mental and physical health.
In fact, today, I’ll explain six science-backed ways in which owning a dog boosts your overall health.
But first, let’s look at how the dog-human bond emerged…
Dog-human bond dates back millennia
In the natural world, the predators that sit at the top of the food chain (like bears and large cats) tend to live solitary lives—mainly because they require a large range of territory for subsistence and survival.
But canines, like wolves, are different. They’re social animals that band together for subsistence and survival.
Of course, many millennia ago, some grey wolves (canis lupus) began to gather around human settlements. And humans may have slipped the more docile wolves a scrap (or two) of meat.
Over time, these friendly wolves developed a strong, symbiotic (or mutually beneficial relationship) with humans…helping them to hunt, giving them companionship, and warning them against other dangers. And to this day, dogs continue to help us survive during stressful times…
Dogs support human health in SIX key ways
Dogs are more than just furry companions that greet you happily when you walk in the door—and keep you company day in and day out. In fact, modern research shows that dog owners are happier, healthier, and live longer lives.
Here are six of the biggest benefits of dog ownership:
- Dogs give us a sense of purpose. The iconic psychiatrist Sigmund Freud said love and work are the “cornerstones of humanness.” Well, caring for a dog provides us the opportunity to do both. In fact, research suggests that caring for a dog gives owners a powerful sense of purpose. And having a reason to get up and start your day was especially important throughout the pandemic. It’s equally important for people who live alone or who have retired.
- Dogs keep us moving. As I often report, I suggest you get 140 to 150 minutes of light-to-moderate physical activity each week. And owning a dog can help get you there! Especially if you’re a bit older. In fact, a recent U.K. study found that dog owners, ages 65 and over, spend 22 more minutes walking each day compared to people who don’t own dogs. That’s an extra 2,760
- Dogs help turn us into “social butterflies.” Pet owners tend to get out more and interact socially with others. It’s also easier to greet people and engage in “small talk” when you have a friendly dog at your side.
Of course, dogs also serve as great companions themselves. Especially if you’re an empty-nester, live on your own…or make your home in the nation’s capital. In fact, you may remember President Harry Truman once famously said, “If you want a friend [in Washington, D.C.], get a dog.”
- Dogs support our mental health. Multiple studies over the years have shown that pet owners suffer from less depression, anxiety, and mental illness. This finding probably relates to the first three benefits—that pets help give us a sense of purpose…get us moving…and connect us with other people. Most also feel a sense of genuine love, affection, and acceptance from their pet, which tends to improve mood.
- Dogs help us reduce feelings of loneliness. Dogs can help reduce feelings of loneliness, which research links to many health problems, including this serious brain disease. In fact, in a 2013 study, researchers found that older adults between the ages of 55 and 84 who had a higher attachment to a pet had much lower levels of reported loneliness. And combatting loneliness is even more important as you get older, as you may have fewer social connections.
- Dogs help us reduce stress. Having a dog in your life can also help reduce stress, the No. 1 hidden cause of cardiovascular disease. In fact, scientists have noted that simply spending time with a dog reduces blood pressure and the stress (and aging) hormone cortisol. At the same time, it boosts “feel good” neurotransmitters like oxytocin. No wonder they often bring a service dog into court rooms to help put child and adult victims of abuse at ease! Colleges and universities also bring in service dogs for the students to pet during stressful exam weeks. And there’s even an entire health practice of animal-assisted therapy (AAT), as I reported in one of the first chapters of my medical textbook 20 years ago.
Animals help us find meaning in life
In the end, I believe spending time with animals is a natural, healthy part of the human experience. Especially since they can help us find meaning and fulfillment.
When I was in grade school, I remember learning about St. Francis of Assisi (1181 – 1226) who said animals are part of God’s creation and have consciousness. He was even said to preach to the animals as they gathered around him.
One summer, I had the chance to drive with my family on a country road in Assisi, Italy. We stopped for a picnic lunch under the trees. And we could see the town of Assisi in the distance through the fields. We sat there quietly enjoying our lunch and watching and listening to all the animals around us. It was one of the most peaceful and pleasant memories I have of my childhood. And I cherish it to this day.
I’ve occasionally had birds or squirrels gather around me (as St. Francis did). And we’ve always had dogs in the Micozzi house. In fact, after our beloved Great Dane Max passed away a few summers ago, our daughter didn’t let much time pass before adopting another furry friend named Lolly.