Saturday, 28 May 2016

How Dogs Can Improve Your Health

That little face, those little paws, that personality...dogs are the best! But dogs are more than just cute, playful little (or big) balls of energy; research has shown that they can boost health and life expectancy at any age, in a multitude of ways.

My dog, Charlie
First, regular exposure to dogs can make children healthier by "training" their immune systems to be less sensitive to allergens. In a study on 285 babies, regular contact with dogs resulted in an allergen sensitisation rate of 19% instead of 33%, and an atopic dermatitis rate of 30% instead of 51%. Babies with the 159TT genotype had a 5% risk of atopic dermatitis if they were exposed to dogs, and a 43% risk if they weren't. Exposure to dogs also resulted in a higher IL-10 and IL-13 response at the age of one; these are two anti-inflammatory interleukins (as opposed to pro-inflammatory interleukins such as IL-6). It seems as though dogs hold more sway over respiratory health than the anti-atopy 159TT genotype, which contradicts the over-simplified "it's aaaaall in the geeeenes" high school biology classes I had. I myself have become less sensitive to my dog's fur over time. Dogs can also help children with autism, by reducing problematic behaviour and levels of stress hormones through their companionship.

As for adults, dogs can also reduce the risk of illness, with owners making 15% fewer doctor's appointments and taking less time off work (which means less catching up to do later!) Physical activity increases, and social bonds with other dog-owning friends strengthen as we are reminded to not be constantly working. The average dog owner walks approximately 5 hours a week, which is the Australian physical activity guideline for adults, and for empty-nesters, a fur kid can fulfil the need to be needed. "Elderly" dog owners have also been found to have healthier blood pressure and cholesterol (most likely from more walking); less stress, better nutrition and increased parasympathetic nervous system function - the side of the autonomic nervous system which stimulates digestion. There was even a small study of elderly patients hospitalised for heart issues which found that pet owners were more likely to survive! Owning a dog or other pet comes with a wide range of health benefits, but if you cannot afford or keep one yourself, perhaps volunteering or taking on an on-the-side job with dogs will bring the same benefits.

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