Dogs: Our best friends in sickness and in health

Dogs: Our best friends in sickness and in health


Dogs have been the focus of many scientific studies into how they boost our wellbeing. In this article we will look into how dogs benefit people’s health across the board.

The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) estimates that 78 million dogs are owned as pets in the U.S. alone. Studies have shown that, although it is unclear when dogs were first domesticated, dogs were first tamed between 20-40,000 years ago.  

Humans have therefore likely shared a special bond of friendship and mutual support since the Neolithic period – but why has this bond been so long-lasting?

Of course, throughout history dogs have been and still often are used to guard our homes, keep us and our dwellings safe, protect cattle, and guard our material goods. Dogs have also been trained to assist with hunting, and selectively breed into a huge variety of breeds.

Dogs are, and may always have been, truly valued companions. Their loyalty is famed, and so is their willingness to put a smile on their owners’ faces.

Research has outlined how dogs make us happier, more resilient when facing stress, and physically healthier. These are just a few ways in which dogs help to support our health and wellbeing.

How dogs keep you in good health


Many studies have found that having a pet dog is associated with improved physical health, and is demonstrated in reviews. Just last year, a new article was released which showed that owning a dog reduces a person’s risk of premature death by up to a third. A study from the University of Harvard in Cambridge, MA, also suggested that dog owners have a lower risk of heart disease.

These benefits may occur due to a series of lifestyle adjustments that people tend to make when adopting a dog. The most prominent change is physical activity – if you own a dog, you must commit to walking them.

One study found that dog owners are more likely to walk for leisure purposes than non-pet owners and cat owners. These results were based on a study of 41,514 participants from California, some of whom owned dogs, some of whom owned cats, and some of whom did not own any pets.

Multiple recent studies also found that adults aged 60 and over experience better health thanks to the “enforced” exercise they get by walking their dogs.

Interestingly, dogs don’t only strengthen our health as we grow older, but also as children and even before we are born.

A study published last year found that the children of mothers who spent time around dogs during pregnancy had a lower risk of developing eczema in early childhood. Children who are exposed to certain bacteria carried by dogs also experienced a reduction of asthma symptoms.

'Dogs make people feel good'


One of the most intuitive benefits of having a dog is that they give you “feel-good vibes” almost instantly. Many people are cheered up when they are greeted with enthusiasm by a friendly dog.

Researchers have explained that this is due to the “love hormone”, oxytocin.

When we interact with dogs, our oxytocin levels spike. As this hormone is largely responsible for social bonding, this increase boosts our psychological wellbeing.

Previous studies have revealed that dog owners also have more positive social interactions, and that the presence of a dog makes people not only more trusting, but more deserving of trust.

Dogs also appear to reduce symptoms of depression and make people more resilient to stress – this is why dogs are often used as therapy animals. As researcher Brian Hare, of Duke University in Durham, NC, noted in an interview for The Washington Post:

"Dogs make people feel good, and their only job is to help people in stressful situations feel better."

Therapy dogs have been found to improve the psychological wellbeing of children going through cancer treatment. They also help people who have been diagnosed with PTSD deal with their symptoms or even prevent the onset of PTSD episodes.

What clinical research in dogs can teach us


Dogs could also open new avenues of research when it comes to clinical research concerning human health problems. Dogs can share certain metabolic conditions, such as obesity, with their owners.

By learning about canine gut microbiota and how they are affected by diet, scientists could use this information to help understand how best to tackle human eating habits.

Dogs are also able to develop some forms of cancer, such as brain tumours. By learning which genes predispose dogs to gliomas, the research may be able to be used in human cancer research. In addition, a contagious form of canine cancer could help to reveal how forms of cancer found in humans have developed.

Dogs also experience some characteristics of dementia, such as impaired problem solving abilities. If researchers are able to explain how dogs are affected by these symptoms, we may become better equipped to better treat dementia in humans.

"Dogs," notes Dr. Rosalind Arden, of the London School of Economics and Political Science in the U.K., "are one of the few animals that reproduce many of the key features of dementia."

"[S]o," she goes on to add, "understanding their cognitive abilities could be valuable in helping us to understand the causes of this disorder in humans and possibly test treatments for it."


In summary, dogs not only provide us with company and amusement, but also keep us in good physical shape. Their health problems can also mirror our own, meaning that their data can contribute to research into similar human conditions.

Most of all, we welcome them into our lives, as we have done for so long, due to their ability to instantly bring us joy and calm.

Author Dean Koontz summarized this perfectly in his memoir of his own much-loved dog:

"One of the greatest gifts we receive from dogs is the tenderness they evoke in us. [...] By their delight in being with us, the reliable sunniness of their disposition, the joy they bring to playtime, the curiosity with which they embrace each new experience, dogs can melt cynicism, and sweeten the bitter heart."


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