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  Volume No. 17 Issue No. 5 May 2020  

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Front Page   |   Feature Stories   |   Search This Issue   |   Log In

Dr. Jim Humphries

  Dog owners live longer
  By Dr. Jim Humphries

   Most of us have read at least one article about how pets are good for us. Maybe some of you have also seen solid research that proves dogs and cats and other companion animals are good for our physical and mental health in many different ways. It’s true, not only are they our best buddies, but also they offer a unique close companionship (in a sometimes-lonely world), they clearly reduce anxiety and improve our mood. These facts have been scientifically proven, dating back about 50 years. In addition, pet animals force us to exercise and cause us to spend more time outdoors; and, in Colorado, those possibilities are endless.
   Well, now, researchers are trying to find out exactly how they keep people alive longer. Here is more research, as if we needed it, to prove that a dog will help you live longer. There is a new study published in the journal of the American Heart Association, which has looked back at decades of evidence on the subject.
   After reviewing 10 studies that included data on almost four million participants, the authors determined that, “Dog ownership was associated with an overall 24 percent risk reduction for all-cause mortality as compared to non-ownership.” That is significant! The data also showed even greater benefits among those patients who had experienced cardiovascular issues, such as a heart attack and stroke.
   The author’s final conclusion: “Dog ownership is associated with a lower risk of death over the long term, (and they surmise this is) possibly driven by a reduction in cardiovascular mortality.” If you are a dog lover, this is completely understandable and not earth-shaking information. But, what is it that causes these effects?
   Emotional effects: Some of the findings showed that dogs offer a unique type of companionship, one we can’t seem to get anywhere else. Dogs also offer reductions in anxiety and loneliness; they improve scores regarding our self-esteem and improve our overall mood. These are things that are hard to quantify but have a real effect, especially over decades and especially when you have a special relationship with a special dog. So, the opposite is true, stress goes up if you have a dog that just causes you problems. The answer here is to find the right dog and get that dog into training right away. “Building” the right dog from the beginning is everything –- they don’t just train themselves!
   Physical effects: Several studies have shown that having a dog who depends on you increases physical exercise. People who own dogs spend more time outdoors, clearly beneficial to health. And we’ve known for a long time that simply petting a nice, friendly, sweet dog lowers our blood pressure. Doing this every day and every evening after work is a long-term blood pressure therapy you can’t get anywhere else. Now this is not true for someone’s protective breed who is giving you warning signs to back off. That should make your blood pressure go up.
   “Pet owners tend to be younger, wealthier, better educated and more likely to be married, all of which improve cardiovascular outcomes,” according to the study. Still, the balance of the evidence to date shows that the association between dog ownership and improved survival rates is real.
   The study shows that, “The most important benefits of dog ownership on cardiovascular outcomes are the improvements in mental health, including lower rates of depression, decreased loneliness and increased self-esteem.” Of course, in a study like this, groups of people are “randomly instructed to acquire a dog,” and it seems to me that would skew data a bit. In other words, the most involved study participant would want or have a dog already and not be “forced” to have one. Nonetheless, the results showed a positive effect; and, I think for those who were dog lovers before the study, the effect would be even greater.
   This study did not look at the health effects of cat ownership, but this has been studied before — and the results also showed a similar decrease in fatal heart events.
   So, the bottom line is this: If you are quite serious about living a long and happy life, you should get both a dog and a cat to cover all your bases –- and then be happy! I would recommend you get them insured so the expenses don’t cause the opposite effect.

   Dr. Jim Humphries is a veterinarian and provides hospice and end-of-life care for pets in the Colorado Springs area. He also serves as a visiting professor at the College of Veterinary Medicine at Texas A&M University. He lives in Falcon with his wife, horses and Great Danes.
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