You may not think so when you get a heart-stopping veterinarian bill — or when all your dog does is laze on the couch and watch TV with you — but dog ownership actually can provide a variety of health benefits.
Anecdotal and scientific evidence have shown that dog owners tend to be healthier than the average person. Here are seven ways that living with a dog might keep you healthy.
Scientific reports of dogs sniffing out cancerous growths go back at least two decades. According to a 1989 case study in The Lancet, a patient reported that her dog would constantly sniff at a mole on her leg, and once even tried to bite the lesion off. Prompted by this, she had her mole checked out and found it to be a malignant melanoma.
But dogs are not only good at sniffing out skin cancer, some can also detect bladder, lung, breast, ovarian and colon cancer. In fact, a specially trained eight-year-old black Labrador named Panda correctly detected colorectal cancer in 33 out of 37 samples of people's breath and stool that scientists had collected. Moreover, according to the article in the journal Gut published this year, Panda appeared to be highly accurate at detecting early-stage colorectal cancer.
It's unclear whether such dogs are zeroing in on some unknown, tumor-related volatile compounds, or more conventional substances in body fluids associated with an increased risk of cancer, such as metabolites of cigarettes, the researchers said. However, in this experiment, Panda identified cancer patients even among body—fluid samples from people with inflammation, a history of smoking, or other diseases.
This is perhaps no surprise to owners that frequently walk or exercise with their dogs. After all, dogs are more likely to beg for a walk or a game of fetch than other house pets.
According to a 2010 study in the American Journal of Public Health, children with dogs spent more time doing moderate to vigorous physical activity than children without dogs.
And this effect extends to adult dog owners. According to a 2006 study done by Canadian researchers at the University of Victoria, dog owners were more likely to participate in mild to moderate physical activity. They walked an average of 300 minutes per week, compared with non-dog owners, who walked an average of 168 minutes per week.
The difference between dog owners and those who do not own a pet may be less dramatic, but still significant — in a 2008 study by the National Cancer Institute, dog owners only walked 19 minutes more per week by comparison.
Regardless, this still hinges on your willingness to walk the dog in the first place. According to a 2006 study by Johns Hopkins University researchers, while dog ownership might obligate owners to walk their dogs, only a fraction of owners walked their dogs at least three times a week, and that fraction was especially among elderly dog owners. Therefore, even though dog ownership might promote walking activity and motivate both the dog and the owner to go outside for some fresh air, you're not going to experience those benefits if you're too reluctant to walk the dog.
Some trained dogs seem to detect low blood sugar levels. According to a 2000 article in the British Medical Journal, more than one-third of dogs living with diabetic people have been reported to display behavioral changes when their owners' blood sugar drops, sometimes even before patients themselves were aware of it. In two case studies cited by the paper, the dogs not only detected their owners' falling glucose levels, they even nudged their owners into eating.
It's unclear how the dogs did it, but it's possible that they detected minute muscle tremors, or changes in the owners' scents, according to the study.
And they might be able to learn the skill. Reportedly, Cavalier King Charles Spaniel was recently taught to recognize low blood sugar by the Pups in Prison program at the Junee Correctional Centre in Australia, where inmates helped train service dogs.
Many parents worry about exposing young children to dogs, fearing it could trigger allergy or eczema reactions. However, preliminary research showed that children were significantly less likely to develop eczema by age 4 if they began mingling with dogs at infancy.
The study, published in the Journal of Pediatrics in 2011, followed 636 children and found the rate of eczema was lower among kids who lived with a family dog. In fact, even for kids sensitive to dog allergens, having a dog did not increase their risk of developing eczema.
But before you rush out to get a dog for your kid, keep in mind that more research still needs to be done in this area. Previous research has shown that dogs can also increase the risk of asthma in some kids.
The duties of a seizure dog are similar to those of a seeing-eye dog — to help their owners navigate day-to-day activities, and steer them away from harmful situations. There are many organizations in the United States that train seizure dogs. In most cases, these dogs are trained to recognize subtle behavior or body language changes during seizure events.
But some believe that the dogs are perceptive enough to warn their owners of oncoming attacks, allowing the owners to take seizure-blocking medication, get to a safe place or call for assistance. However, there are very few scientific studies supporting the idea that dogs can detect epileptic seizures ahead of time.
According to two articles in the journal Neurology in 2007, studies on seizure dogs were vulnerable to reporting bias because most relied on patient and family reports of dog and patient behavior. Despite such anecdotes, the study said, some dogs were more likely to respond to psychological seizures, which stem from emotional difficulties and are different than epileptic seizures. In a case cited by the paper, a dog actually triggered a nonepileptic seizure by licking its owner's face.
Although some researchers have cast doubt that dogs are able to alert owners to seizures, most researchers agree that a dog can at the very least provide important support and companionship for patients with epilepsy.
Some dogs are good at sniffing out illicit substances and bombs. However, it appears that other dogs' olfactory prowess is better used in detecting allergens.
For people whose peanut allergies are so severe that even miniscule residues in the air can trigger an allergic reaction, a peanut detection dog can come in handy, according to according to training facilities such as the Florida Canine Academy. These dogs, after going through vigorous training, can detect the trace presence of peanuts in a room, such as a cookie left on the table or a candy bar hidden in a lunch bag.
Owners with peanut allergies still have to be vigilant about peanut contaminations in food, and should always carry an epinephrine pen in case of emergencies. However, peanut-detecting dogs can help ease their minds.
In fact, that is the concept behind many pet visitation programs at hospitals and rehabilitation centers. Therapy dogs can encourage mobility, interpersonal contact and socialization among patients. According to a 2005 review in the British Medical Journal, dogs act as “social catalysts,” leading to greater interaction between people and alleviating feelings of loneliness, especially among elderly patients with physical disabilities.
Dog owners are also better at dealing with stressful events, and therefore helping them avoid anxiety-related illnesses, the study said.
Although some studies have suggested that dog owners are significantly less likely to die within one year of a heart attack than those who did not own dogs, those studies were based on a small sample and weren't population-based.