"Man's best friend" is a common phrase referring to the close relationship of loyalty and friendship between dogs and humans. Some dogs even play crucial roles with people who have health conditions. Just think of guide dogs for the visually impaired, or assistance dogs for people with a physical disability, or those with diabetes, post-traumatic stress disorders or Alzheimer's: there is no denying that dogs are excellent companions.
The physical and psychological health benefits of owning a dog appear to be numerous. Indeed, several studies indicate that owning a dog is associated with a lower risk of asthma and cardiovascular disease, lower blood pressure and stress, as well as improved well-being, alleviation of social isolation and increased physical activity. A recent Canadian study revealed that dog owners appear to have enjoyed better mental health since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.(1)
But does owning a dog lead to a longer, healthier life?
What research tells us
A recent systematic review of 10 studies, examining data on more than three million participants between 1950 and 2019, examined the long-term survival of older adults who are dog owners.(2)
The review finds that having a dog is associated with a 24% reduction in the risk of death from all causes. Better yet: in people who have had coronary events in the past (for example, a heart attack), living in a house with a dog is associated with an even more pronounced reduction in the risk of death from all causes. In addition, when researchers narrowed the analyzes to studies assessing mortality from cardiovascular problems, having a dog conferred a 31% reduction in the risk of death.
How to explain such a reduction in the risk of mortality? The reduction in the risk of mortality for dog owners is possibly due to a reduction in cardiovascular deaths. Dog owners are physically active because they have to walk their pets every day. They are therefore less likely to develop diabetes, have a lower resting heart rate and a better stress response. This means that increased physical activity is associated with a lower risk of death and heart problems.
In addition, having a dog has beneficial social and psychological effects for the elderly. For example, compared to other activities, simply petting a dog lowers blood pressure. In addition, since many older adults live alone, the presence of an animal helps to break loneliness and create interactions with other people during walks, thus promoting better well-being and healthy aging.
Adopting a dog: a decision not to be taken lightly
Adopting a dog can be rewarding, but also challenging, especially for older adults who may have limited income, or who have serious health or mobility issues.
Adopting a dog is not a decision to be taken lightly:
- Be realistic about your responsibilities: Can you take care of the dog, feed it, and take him to the vet? Can you take it out for a walk, summer or winter?
- Be realistic about your health status: Do you have any allergies? Could a dog increase your risk for falls?
- Think about your living environment: Are dogs allowed in your apartment or residence?
- Plan for the future: Who will take care of your dog if you need to be hospitalized or cannot take care of it?
- Explore the dog breed that might be right for you: What is the best dog breed for you, for your personal circumstances?
- Examine the dog's temperament: Dogs, like humans, have temperaments (calm or energetic, docile or dominant, etc.). Is your temperament (or your lifestyle) suitable for a specific dog?