News on Wellness

Dogs Have Huge Impacts on Stress-Related Ailments

Dogs and HealthThere are a bunch of good things about owning a dog (something I write a lot about). They’re loving, they’re constant companions, and they’re just plain fun.

But there’s a substantial (and increasing) body of scientific evidence that dogs can also contribute significantly to psychological well-being. And that, in turn, contributes to a host of other great health benefits, including reduced blood pressure, less anxiety and better cardiovascular health.

Here’s how it works.

First and most importantly, studies have shown that dog owners in stressful situations tend to experience fewer of the negative side effects of stress.

There was a study done by Dr. Karen Allen, an assistant professor of medicine at the University of Bufflo. She measured the negative effects of stress on a sample of 48 stock brokers. Of that group, 24 randomly chosen to interact with a dog on a daily basis (officially, it was part of a “treatment” regimen).

The outcome was pretty cool. The people who interacted with dogs had significantly lower blood pressure than those who didn’t.

When the study was conducted, every person in the sample group was undergoing treatment for hypertension (high blood pressure) and were taking lisinopril, an angiotensin converting enzyme (ACE) inhibitor commonly used to treat high blood pressure.

Not only did interacting with the dogs work, but it worked better than the Lisinopril the stockbrokers were already taking. In fact, when Dr. Allen informed the control group (the people who did not interact with dogs) about the results, lots of them became dog owners afterward.

Dr. Allen has conducted other studies that have resulted in similar findings. One study showed that owning a dog can have some of the same psychological benefits of interacting with a close friend—and this was especially true for older women living in relative isolation.

In another experiment (Siegel JM, Angulo FJ, Detels R, Wesch J, Mullen A. AIDS Diagnosis and Depression in the Multicenter AIDS Cohort Study: the Ameliorating Impact of Pet Ownership. AIDS Care. April 1999), researchers discovered that if AIDS patients owned dogs, they were less likely to be depressed than those who did not own dogs.

But why does it work this way?

Some of the positive physiological benefits of dog ownership are still a mystery, and, since the field is relatively young, lots of the studies in this field focus on observing phenomena in dog-human interaction rather than rooting out the mechanism that cause them to work.

However, some theories suggest that people who own dogs have higher levels of dopamine and serotonin.

In other words, there’s a lot of good, hard science that says dogs really do make people happier, and they can have a pretty big impact for people in very stressful situations.

Dopamine is associated with motivation and pleasure. Specifically, the chemical centers that release dopamine are associated with the areas of the brain the process emotions related to “rewards.” So, dopamine is released when rewarding experiences occur, like eating a great steak or having sex.

In particular, though, dopamine is related to the satisfaction felt after getting a reward from a “seeking,” behavior—or doing something to get something.

For a dog owner, that might be as simple as calling a dog over and having it come to you. Or, it may be as complex and teaching a dog to run an agility course and winning a prize.

Serotonin, on the other hand, corresponds to resource availability. In layman’s terms, it means that if there’s an abundance of resources (like food), your mood is likely to be better. But food isn’t the only resource.

Humans also have a serotonin response to feelings of social dominance (not in a mean way—more like a parent would feel), which is very easy to feel with a dog who depends on you for everything.

In other words: dogs make you happy. And the happier you are, the less stressed you are. And by reducing stress, you can also reduce any number of the nasty physiological side effects that go along with it.

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