You know how much joy your dog brings to your life, but do you know just how much he could also be boosting your wellbeing? To learn more, we've rounded up the latest research and have a true story on how a dog is helping his owner to manage a heart condition!
1. Dogs put a spring in your step
While it won't surprise you that owning a dog can encourage you to exercise more, recent research has discovered that the benefits go even further than that. A study from the University of St Andrews discovered that dog owners over the age of 65 had the activity levels of someone 10 years younger. And a study in Missouri, USA, revealed that dog walking was also associated with a lower body mass index (BMI) and fewer doctor's visits. The benefits aren't confined to the over-65s either: research by St George's, University of London, showed that children from dog-owning families spent more time being physically active, and typically took an extra 360 steps each day. So every time you head out for a walk you're benefitting your health and your pet's.
2. Owning a dog lowers your blood pressure
There's more good news when it comes to owning a dog: studies have found a positive link between dog ownership and healthy blood pressure. So your pet is even better for your health than you thought, as high blood pressure can lead to serious health problems, such as heart attacks and strokes. American research discovered that dog owners were less likely to have dangerous 'spikes' in their heart rates and blood pressure during stressful situations. And an earlier study found that simply having their dog in the same room helped to lower test subjects' blood pressure better than a prescribed medication did. All the more reason to keep your pet close to you!
3. Having a dog can protect your heart
Dog ownership has been shown to reduce the risk of heart disease. One of the possible reasons, according to Harvard Medical School, is that owning a dog is associated with lower cholesterol levels and less fat in the blood - differences that weren't necessarily linked to diet, smoking or BMI. A 2017 Swedish study from Uppsala University also found that dog owners are up to 36% less likely to die from cardiovascular disease. Interestingly, the scientists noted that owners of hunting breeds, like terriers and retrievers, had the lowest risk of heart disease across the study, perhaps because of the levels of exercise these pets need. However, exercise alone doesn't explain the results: your dog's love and companionship is also thought to make a difference - something we know you already appreciate.
4. Your pet may help you sleep better
A 2017 study by the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota, proved what many dog owners have long suspected to be true: you sleep better if your dog is in the same room. However, researchers found that for the best night's rest, the pet slept off the bed. The scientists believed that sleep quality improved because a pet's presence provided a sense of comfort and security.
5. Dogs can even aid in balancing your hormones
The power of curling up on the sofa with your pet is clear: several studies have proved that interacting with pets or therapy dogs can reduce the production of cortisol, often labelled the 'stress hormone'. In 2011, research by Kerstin Uvnas Moberg, a specialist in female health, also showed that oxytocin - a hormone linked to empathy and pleasure - peaks in both people and their dogs when they positively interact.
True story: How a dog is helping his owner with her heart condition
'Competitive sport was a central part of my life,' says Helen Cawthorne. 'I was a full-time PE teacher, and a competitive triathlete.' That was until 2011, when a cardiac arrest changed Helen's life forever. Her heart stopped after swimming one day, and she was diagnosed with a very serious, inherited heart condition called ARVC (arrhythmogenic right ventricular cardiomyopathy), which affects the heart muscle and can cause sudden death.
'I was devastated when I realised my triathlon career was over,' Helen recalls. Equally upsetting was her loss of confidence: when she left hospital, she was too frightened to leave the house alone. As running was no longer an option, Helen started gently walking herself back to fitness but there was still a big void in her life. Happily, in 2012, her partner Mick suggested they get a dog and she fell in love with Spike, a 10-week-old German Shorthaired Pointer. Five years later, Spike has played a crucial role in Helen's recovery, both physically and mentally.
'I walk several miles every day with Spike, which helps my circulation and reduces the risk of blood clots,' she explains. 'Although I regained some confidence before Spike came along, I'm much more confident with him beside me. When I feel dizzy or light-headed, I have to stop until my heart sorts itself out and regains the correct rhythm. Spike knows just to stand by me and nuzzle my hand. And if I fall when we're walking together, he comes back immediately, licking my face and fussing over me until I'm standing again.
'The mental relief he provides is enormous, too. Spike never judges me, and he never snitches! His zest for life makes me laugh and gives me a good reason to get out of bed every day. As long as Spike never stops being himself, the world for me will always be a better and safer place.'
For information on heart health and rehabilitation, call the BHF heart helpline on 0300 330 3311 or visit bhf.org.uk