Get Healthy, Get a Dog: Health Benefits of Canine Companionship

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Dear Reader,

There’s a reason dogs are called man’s best friend: not only do they offer unparalleled companionship, but a growing body of research shows they also boost our health. Numerous studies suggest that owning a dog can prompt you to be more physically active—have leash, will walk. In addition, dogs can reduce feelings of isolation and loneliness in people and help calm jagged nerves: several studies show that petting a dog can reduce blood pressure and heart rate in humans (while having a salutary effect on the dog as well). In this Harvard Special Health Report, we explore these studies.

As dog owners ourselves, we can attest to the psychological and physical benefits of having a dog in your life. But it’s also important to be aware of your effect on your dog. People who are overweight and sedentary tend to have dogs that are overweight and sedentary. In fact, obesity has reached epidemic proportions in the canine community, affecting 56% of dogs, just as it has for humans. So if you have an unhealthy, overweight dog, that may be a red flag that you’re unhealthy yourself. In this report, we recommend some healthy lifestyle changes for both you and your dog to further boost the benefits we described above. If the two of you already exercise together, we suggest some ways to expand your activities.

If you don’t own a dog but would like to adopt one, we guide you in choosing a companion that will suit your lifestyle. We also cover the role of service dogs in the lives of humans and ways to benefit from contact with canines even if you don’t own a dog yourself. And we’ve created a special section on optimal dog nutrition, plus a chapter on exercise, so you know exactly what your dog needs to stay healthy and fit.

While dogs have much to offer us and we to them, we don’t recommend adopting a dog unless you have the time and energy to attend to your companion’s nutritional, physical, emotional, and social needs. If you’re working 15-hour days on a regular basis and you can’t take your dog with you to your workplace, then you don’t have the time to be a responsible and loving dog parent. It’s important that we respect dogs as sentient beings that are capable of fear, anxiety, and sadness as well as joy and contentedness, and that need love and attention. Although dogs are wonderful motivators for getting moving, they are not just a means to a healthier end. Adopting a dog is a commitment that will last for many years, and you must be ready and willing to take on that responsibility. If you do, it’s likely you will be richly rewarded with one of the most satisfying, loving, and active relationships you’ll ever experience.

Sincerely,

Elizabeth Pegg Frates, M.D.
Medical Editor

Lisa Moses, V.M.D.
Medical Editor

Browse This Article by Topic:

Our Dogs, Our Selves
Benefits of Dog Ownership
How Dogs Make Us Healthier
Special Section: Nutrition Guidelines for Dogs
Exercises for You and Your Dog
Adopting a Dog
Being a Responsible Dog Owner
Raising a Well-Behaved Dog
Grieving a Loss
Resources/Credits

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