An essay in the Guardian by Luisa Dillner, "Is owning a dog good for your health?" poses a question in which numerous people are keenly interested. While many studies show that living with a companion dog has various positive effects on lifestyle and health, not everyone who lives with a dog experiences them, and some people just don't want to share their lives with another animal. (For more on this topic, please see "The Pet Factor: Companion Animals as a Conduit for Getting to Know People, Friendship Formation and Social Support," and click here for numerous other links.)
I was intrigued by Dillner's essay and question, so I read the research essay to which her piece refers, "Dog ownership and the risk of cardiovascular disease and death — a nationwide cohort study," published in Scientific Reports. The entire essay is available online; here are a few highlights to whet your appetite for more:
The researchers were able to study a huge population of individuals in Sweden: 3,432,153 (48 percent men, 52 percent women, median age 57) participated in the national cohort, and 34,202 (45 percent men, 55 percent women, median age 57) took part in the twin cohort. They also were able to collect detailed data on cause of death from cardiovascular disease, including acute myocardial infarction, heart failure, scheme stroke, and hemorrhagic stroke.
The detail with which this study was conducted sets the standard for such analyses. All in all, the researchers conclude: "Taken together, we believe our longitudinal population-wide design provides the most robust evidence so far of a link between dog ownership and health outcomes, although bias from reverse causation, misclassification, and confounding cannot be excluded...[I]n a nationwide population-based study with 12 years of follow-up, we show that dog ownership is associated with a lower risk of cardiovascular disease in single households and with a reduced risk of cardiovascular and all-cause death in the general population."
Along these lines, Dillner writes, "A study of 3.4 million people between the ages of 40 and 80 found that having a dog was associated with a 23 percent reduction in death from heart disease and a 20 percent lower risk of dying from any cause over the 12 years of the study." She further notes how the researchers tried as hard as they could to control for "any differences in education, existing ill-health and lifestyles between those with and without dogs." The largest positive effect of living with a dog was for people who lived alone.
Living with a dog is good for you only if it's good for you and the dog.
I often get asked whether living with a dog is really beneficial. Sweeping headlines often make it seem like it is, and unless people read between the lines, it appears like choosing to live with a dog is a panacea for all sorts of situations and conditions. It isn't. And surely, the dog has to be part of the equation, because her or his quality of life has to be taken into account.
While existing data show that there are, indeed, some health and social benefits for some people who choose to live with a dog, including getting out and taking some exercise, I choose to answer the question of whether living with a dog is good for people by clearly saying something like, "Living with a dog is good for you only if it's good for you and the dog." Sometimes people giggle when they hear me say this, but I say it very seriously and with all my heart. (For more, see "Dog ownership supports the maintenance of physical activity during poor weather in older English adults: cross-sectional results from the EPIC Norfolk cohort.")
The reason I say what I do is because choosing to live with a dog has to be a two-way affair in which both the human and the dog benefit from the relationship. (For more on this, see: The Animals' Agenda, "Giving Puppies Extra Socialization Is Beneficial for Them," "Companion Animals Need Much More Than We Give Them, and "Dogs Want and Need Much More Than They Usually Get From Us.)
Choosing to share your home and heart with a dog (or other companion animal) is a huge responsibility that could be highly stressful for people who just don't have the time, energy, money, or knowledge to give the nonhuman the best life possible. The dogs can suffer because of this. I've known, as I imagine many others also have, people with good intentions who choose to live with a dog and then simply cannot do what's needed for their nonhuman friend. These people then get stressed out because they can't give their dog what she or he needs. So for them, the choice is not a good one, despite their good intentions.
I look forward to much more research on the benefits of living with dogs and other companion animals. The above study on a huge number of Swedes sets the standard for future work. I also look forward to studies that focus on all individuals, human and nonhuman, who are part of the ongoing social relationship. When it's a two-way affair, it's a win-win for all; however, far too often it's not.
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