dogs · fitness

Can fit be a canine issue, too? Dogs and human health

This week, a couple of “having a dog is good for your health” studies came out. One of them , a systematic review of medical studies on associations of dog ownership with health, found a 24% reduced mortality risk across various groups in studies done in several countries. The other one other one found a 21% reduced mortality risk (risk of death from any cause) for people with heart disease. Here’s a bit more detail about this study from the journal commentary:

The effect was remarkably consistent across various demographic subgroups but was modified by the number of individuals in the household: single-person households with dogs were associated with a markedly greater reduction in all-cause mortality than multi-person households. Interestingly, the effect appeared to be somewhat larger for owners of more active breeds like pointers and hunting dogs, possibly due to their need for greater physical activity.

This stands to reason. If you live alone and have a dog, you have to take care of it– feed, walk, play with, throw chew toys around with, etc. And if you have a more active dog, that dog will want and need more stimulation and activity. So you get the same as you take care of your dog. And this is good for you.

Of course, you may be asking the question: does finding an association mean that have a dog causes better health? No. The journal editor made this clear:

… Pet owners tend to be younger, wealthier, better educated, and more likely to be married, all of which improve cardiovascular outcomes… individuals who own a dog may have higher disposable incomes than those who do not. High incomes are in turn associated with a lower prevalence of tobacco use, diabetes, and obesity in the population, so the observed relationship between pet ownership and outcomes may be partially due to socioeconomic factors… Finally, the association between dog ownership and good health may even be reverse causal because adults with excellent physical health are more likely to adopt a dog than those who are too ill or frail to care for a pet…

But, the editor continues, it’s consistent with what we know about human biology that dog ownership has all sorts of positive physical effects on people. And,

…the most salient benefits of dog ownership on cardiovascular outcomes are likely mediated through large and sustained improvements in mental health, including lower rates of depression, decreased loneliness, and increased self-esteem. This may explain why the effect appears to be larger for individuals living alone than those in multi-person households.

The upshot, for me, is this: I should get a dog.

I’ve wanted to get a dog for years. I’ve hemmed and hawed and dragged my feet and trotted out excuses– I’m too busy! I travel too much! My life is already full! I’m not a morning person!

All of these things are true. But I keep coming back to this imperative: Catherine, you need a dog in your life. I do think that, once we (my future dog and me) get settled into a routine, I’ll wonder why I didn’t do this 30 years earlier. (I did grow up with dogs, so I know what I’d be getting into).

Dogs are not fitness accessories like gym memberships or shiny new bikes. They’re creatures with wants and needs who are utterly dependent on us. The seriousness of taking on the care of another creature is what’s given me pause all these years. But I keep coming back to the question: should I get a dog now? How about now?

My inner conversation hasn’t gone anywhere yet, except to endless online perusing of rescue dog sites and breed information gathering. But I am putting this out there as a step forward in the process.

Question to you, dear readers: what are some ways having a dog has affected your health or fitness? Have there been changes? I’d love to hear from you.

12 thoughts on “Can fit be a canine issue, too? Dogs and human health

  1. GET A DOG!! 🙂 I’m not a morning person either but that dog gets me up and moving. She’s my comfort and company. She saved my life, made me brave and basically is the best choice I have made in the last 10 years. I am good a conjuring pets. I will think on a pet for you.

    1. Oh boy! Think on this; I’ll be most beholden… And I believe getting a dog will be a good choice for me, too.

  2. Get the right dog, I guess that’s my advice. I wanted a chill enough dog that, if we didn’t make a walk every single morning, she’d be fine. I have an autoimmune condition that has my energy levels vary a lot, so that was important to me. I also have a backyard though, and if we don’t do a walk, we have space to throw some balls. A super high energy, needs walks twice a day dog would probably not work for me. Definitely talk to people about the temperament of the dog when you’re looking.

    1. Good advice! I don’t have a fenced in backyard, so I will have to take the dog out every morning. Definitely I don’t want a puppy– I’m not up for that amount of round-the-clock care. But many adult dogs breeds are pretty chill. I wouldn’t mind a bit of friskiness– definitely need to consult people about this. Thanks!

  3. If you’re ready for a radical life change, to schedule your whole life around dog walks and potty breaks, ready to spend $$$ on training, vets, supplies, pet care; plus time on all of the above; to discover that your rescue dog has “issues” that require you to rework your life and challenge you in ways never expected, then go for it. I agree with getting the “right” dog for you, but how do you know them until they’ve moved in? We don’t get to “date” our dogs first. We definitely exercise so much more with a dog – up to 2 hrs/day of walks and potty breaks (she won’t pee for at least 20 minutes into a walk, plus 1 long exercise walk/day…you do the math and think about New England winters, and summers lol…) and I’ve started jogging with my dog!! Some of my happiest moments are walks in the woods with her. But that’s hours taken away from yoga class, music practice, social time etc. My husband travels a lot which leaves me to do all the pet care and I’m always happy when he comes home so we can share the caretaking. Otherwise he works from home which is a good match for having a dog. If I were single and self-employed I think I would find dog ownership stressful, restrictive and expensive, which is why I had cats! As a family experience we are learning so much, able to make sacrifices and loving our sweet pea. Life is definitely more fun and our hearts are more full with her around.

    1. Thanks for the full-disclosure info here– you’re right on every point! Lots to think about here.

  4. Agree you should get a dog. But I will say that it’s been tough with my knee injury owning a dog. I’m surrounded by other people who can help walk Cheddar but he needs a lot of walking and I feel sad that I can’t do most of it. I’m not sure how I’d cope of I lived alone. Likely a dog walking service would be involved.

    1. That is a real bummer about not being able to walk Cheddar more– I know you have really loved it. My neighbors use dog walkers for their dog, and it’s pretty common around here. I can’t bring a dog to my office– they’re not allowed at state offices unless they have special status. So three days a week I’d need a dog walker, I think. More to think about. Thanks!

  5. I got my first dog 5 years ago. A rescue I called Barley (he was left at a shelter in Quebec with no name ;(. He was around 2. I was told there were good reasons for me to get a dog that wasn’t a puppy given my schedule. I was single at the time. Barley was the best thing I did. My friends and family noticed what a big difference it made. Not for exercise. I already exercised. And a shitzhu doesn’t require significant amounts of exercise. He’s also a bit of a curmudgeon, but a cute one, and he’s perfect for me. Then my (now husband) came along with two dogs. One passed away shortly after, but Miggy (a mini schnauzer) became my dog too. Now I can’t imagine my life with no dogs.

  6. I have had a dog (not the same dog) for the last 17 years and I’ve been the “morning walker” for all that time. I love the motivation to get out of bed, get out of the house, and the joy of being greeted heartily when I get home from work every day. I missed it very much during the brief period “in between dogs” a few years ago. That said, DO NOT get a puppy. Just don’t do that to yourself. DO invest in training and DO invest in either insurance or a savings account for when the inevitable happens (old age if not an injury). Enjoy your new furbaby!

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