Dear Doctor: I’m 12 years old, and I really want to get a dog. Can you help me find some studies to convince my mom and dad about the benefits of having a dog?
Dear Reader: First, we think it’s terrific that you’re going for a fact-based approach to persuade your parents to get a family pet. The good news is that plenty of scientists share your enthusiasm and, to that end, have amassed quite a body of research about the benefits of having a dog in your life.
We’re going to begin by assuming no one in the family has pet allergies. It’ll be a game-changer if they do. But if there’s no sneezing, coughing, itching, asthma or other adverse reaction among the people in your home, then let’s get to what science has to say.
Many studies suggest that dogs help their owners in many realms: emotionally, physically and mentally. That’s because pet owners tend to walk more, get emotional support and comfort from their pets, suffer less depression, are more social thanks to regular dog walks, and may even get a protective effect against allergies. This last point is thanks to the constant low-grade exposure to the dander, dirt and pollen that an active indoor-outdoor dog brings into the house.
One study showed that older adults who had dogs and walked them regularly had a lower body mass index, had fewer visits to the doctor, and generally spent more time interacting with people than those without dogs. Other studies have shown that being around a dog can reduce stress, which translates to lower blood pressure and better sleep patterns. Several studies have found a link between having a dog in the home and lower rates of asthma and certain allergies among the young children who grow up with the dog.
A study that your parents might like looked at 240 married couples. The couples with a pet in the home had lower blood pressure and heart rates than those without a pet. This applied to when they were just sitting around, as well as while undergoing the rigors of a stress test. And when something did cause them to feel stress, the pet owners’ physical responses were less extreme, and their recoveries were faster.
If a list of the many benefits of dog ownership isn’t working, try some amazing facts about dogs themselves, like that dog noses are so sensitive they can sniff out certain types of cancer more accurately than actual lab tests.
To be fair, we have to address some potential drawbacks. One is that dogs tend to get ticks and fleas, each of which is associated with disease. Dogs that are not properly trained (and even some that are) may bite. And pets getting underfoot are responsible for some of the up to 8 million visits to the ER for falls each year.
As pet lovers ourselves, we have heard from our own patients about how much their dogs mean to them. We wish you a happy outcome when you talk to your mom and dad.
Eve Glazier, M.D., MBA, is an internist and assistant professor of medicine at UCLA Health. Elizabeth Ko, M.D., is an internist and primary care physician at UCLA Health.