August 26 is International Dog Day, a wonderful excuse to adopt, foster, or spoil a canine companion. So why are we featuring this holiday here? Why, because dogs (and other pets) are great for our health! With some precautions, of course–without proper care and hygiene, being around animals can harm health, too. The CDC offers guidelines to protect your health when keeping pets in the home. For those without pets but still spending time with animals, the best safety practice is to simply wash your hands often and avoid touching your face. With those safety measures in mind, let’s look at how pets help us out.
We don’t think we need to explain why exercise is good for you; we have a health-conscious audience and we know that you already know. But we want to point out that spending time with a dog is a great incentive to exercise. All dogs need exercise, of course; even large, more relaxed breeds need regular walks and play. People who have very active or working breeds usually understand that their pet requires more exercise than a 20-minute stroll around the block, but sometimes we have misconceptions about the amount of activity needed by very large or very small dogs. For healthy dogs, it isn’t enough to leave them alone in the backyard and call it exercise. Dogs are social animals and need our company. Caring for a dog well means walking them in a way that matches their needs and sharing playtime. Playing chase, throwing balls, playing tug-of-war, going hiking or swimming or even surfing–all of these count as play to your dog, and all of them will, at some point, make you sweat. Working out stings a little less, though, when you have a loyal friend just thrilled to be by your side.
Although we’re focusing on dogs for the sake of the holiday, all animals help us exercise. Cleaning cages and tanks and stalls counts as exercise. Grooming and tacking up horses counts as exercise (unless someone out there has a saddle that weighs less than 5 pounds; let me know). And although few pets are as reliant on us for play as dogs, many still enjoy some playtime with their human family. I met a tortoise once who loved playing “hockey.” He would crawl forward and nibble on the nearest person’s pant leg until they gave him a push with their foot. This sent him sliding across the floor and underneath a waiting chair, the “goal.” He then crawled back and nibbled on their jeans until they pushed him again. Don’t assume you can’t play with your pets if you don’t have a dog! Turtle hockey doesn’t burn quite the same number of calories as a 10-mile hike with your dog, but more exercise is not the only benefit to being around pets.
I may not have built significant leg muscles playing hockey with Otis the Tortoise, but it definitely made me smile. Forbes explains that being around animals boosts our oxytocin levels, which lowers symptoms of stress and anxiety. They cite a study conducted in New York where people proved less stressed when completing hard tasks when they were with a pet, compared to when they were with a spouse or a friend.
Pets can also boost our self-esteem. It’s hard to feel too bad about yourself when coming home to another living creature overjoyed to see you. For less-gregarious pets, we can also receive a sense of accomplishment. I once rescued a hedgehog, who was definitely crankier and more frightened of me than your average dog. It took a lot of time and patient work to build her trust, and I will never forget how proud and happy I was the first time she let me touch her face. Taking care of other beings and seeing them heal and grow helps us feel like we matter.
Added to this, the companionship of having a pet ties to other improved conditions. Pets help with depression and PTSD–aside from lifting positive hormones and decreasing stress hormones, like cortisol, animals can be a lifeline for people struggling with conditions which isolate them from others. Your pet doesn’t care how put-together you are in the morning, or how many times you canceled coffee dates. They just want to be with you, and that grounding presence and loyalty prevents total isolation. Of course, anyone who has ever walked a dog in public can tell you that having a dog is also great way to talk to other people! The Forbes article refers to a study which found that “pet owners are perceived as ‘friendlier’ by their neighbors, likely due to the amount of engagement they have when outdoors.”
Finally, other studies focused on schoolchildren with autism and ADHD found that the presence of animals improved their classroom behavior, interactions with classmates, and attention span.
Related to this, there is some evidence that animals can improve other health conditions, such as lowering risks for developing schizophrenia or improving behavior and nutrition in Alzheimer’s patients. Other research indicates that being around animals lowers pain (or perceived pain) and motivates people to manage their own health better. The most frequently-cited study showed that teenagers who cared for fish did significantly better at managing their diabetes, but we found mentions of other research indicating that animal companionship also helped cancer patients. People with pets aren’t as likely to get any kind of cardiovascular disease, and, of course, therapy animals do stellar work helping their people handle all sorts of medical conditions, from blindness to seizures.
In short, we really should say thanks. Animals ask very little of us in comparison with what we get in return, so this International Dog Day, give your canine (or other) buddy a little extra love. If you don’t have a pet, considering offering an extra walk for one belonging to a friend or relative, or bring in some treats for pet owners in your office to take home. After all, all of us benefit from a healthier, happier society.
Happy International Dog Day!