How 'man's best friends' can make their owners healthier

Dogs often 'help people in stressful situations feel better,' Duke professor says

Pets, especially dogs, are good for their owners' physical and mental health, Marlene Cimons writes for the Washington Post.

About 43 million U.S. households had dogs in 2012, according to the American Veterinary Medical Association. Increasingly, canines also are showing up in offices, hospitals, and schools to serve as therapy animals.

Brian Hare, an associate professor of cognitive neuroscience at Duke University, summed it up: "Dogs make people feel good," and therapy dogs' "only job is to help people in stressful situations feel better."

Researchers believe that being around dogs releases oxytocin, a hormone that can contribute to relaxation and decreased stress.

"Dogs have somehow hijacked this oxytocin bonding pathway, so that just by making eye contact, or [by] playing and hugging our dog, the oxytocin in both us and our dog goes up," Hare said. "This is why dogs are wonderful in any kind of stressful situation."

Just looking at a dog can decrease anxiety and slow your heart rate, according to research from Jichi Medical University. "The positive interaction between humans and dogs via mutual gazing may reduce stress activity for each other," said researcher Miho Nagasawa.

Many experts recommend that people facing emotional difficulties, such as chronic depression or the loss of a spouse, consider adopting a dog. "Dogs have a positive impact on depression and anxiety," explained Lori Kogan, an associate professor of clinical sciences at the Colorado State University College of Veterinary Medicine. "When someone loses a spouse or partner, for example, having a dog provides a reason to get up and be social."

Dogs aren't just good for your stress levels—they may be good for your waistline, too. Studies have shown that dog owners are more likely to be physically active, can sustain physical activity for longer, and are less likely to be obese.

Pets other than dogs may also have health benefits: Studies from 1980 and 1995 found that heart attack victims were more likely to survive a year after their heart attack if they had a pet. Married couples with a furry friend have lower heart rates and blood pressure than their pet-less peers, according to a 2002 study (Cimons, Washington Post, 9/19).

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