Before I rescued my dog Henry, I had poor health habits. I worked very late and went to more happy hours, goodbye parties, and congratulations parties than I had any business attending. I rarely cooked at home and spent most of my weekends trying new restaurants and gallivanting around the city. I didn’t exercise, and I didn’t eat the best at those restaurants.
But after I got Henry, I had no choice but to be home. He destroyed everything in sight so not only did I fear leaving him alone, I was too broke to go out because I spent all my money replacing everything he consumed – couches, carpets, clothes, shoes, remote controls, books, and dog beds. He was a menace.
Yet, despite his crazy antics and blatant disrespect for furniture, I fell in love with him. And once he stopped being The Hulk and I was safe to resume my nightlife, I didn’t. I chose to stay with him because I liked him. I turned into that person I hated and vowed to never become – the woman that prefers getting wild in the kitchen with her Bed, Bath, & Beyond spatulas on a Friday night instead of wild at the bars. And, in turn, because of him, I started #adulting – eating better, exercising, drinking (a little) less, saving money, and overall just being a better person. I bake homemade dog biscuits now, for god’s sake – who am I?
Henry made me more responsible, sure, but he also improved my overall health. Owning him has made me better in mind, body, and soul, and fortunately, I’m not alone. Animal experts and behaviorists agree that dogs are good for your health in six major ways.
1. They keep our heart healthy
Having a dog in your life helps lower blood pressure and cholesterol and helps reduce the risk of cardiac disease and heart failure, says Amber Jester, a certified animal behavior specialist at Operation Kindness. In fact, a study done by SUNY Buffalo found that out of 240 married couples, those who had a pet at home had healthier hearts than those who didn’t. The study concluded, "People perceive pets as important, supportive parts of their lives, and significant cardiovascular and behavioral benefits are associated with those perceptions."
2. They improve our mental health
Did you know dogs are stress relievers? Simply petting or cuddling your pup can make you feel better because it releases oxytocin – a bonding chemical that helps reduce stress and anxiety and helps people better understand emotions – in both your body and your dog’s body. According to Jester, people who own pets require less medical services, are less likely to be depressed or anxious, and are more satisfied with their lives than those who don’t own pets.
3. They prevent loneliness
Shortly after I got Henry, I endured a tough break-up. I was crushed, heartbroken, and unsure how to proceed. Yet seeing his happy face every day after work, watching him play at the park, and sleeping with him at night brought me back to life. "Dog ownership can help those who feel lonely experience another connection with a living being," says Jester. I talk to him and vent about my day, and he honestly makes me feel better by just being around. Pets like dogs, cats, and guinea pigs also boost social skills and reduce anxiety in children, especially those with autism. They help make children more confident and engaged at school and home, helping them make friends easier.
4. They decrease allergy risks in children.
Kids who have pets in the first year of their lives have a thirteen percent lower risk of having asthma later in life, according to a study in JAMA Pediatrics. In fact, exposure to dogs in infancy not only lowers children’s risk of developing allergies and asthma, it also strengthens their immune development.
5. They keep us active
If owning a dog doesn’t get you active, I don’t know what will. Although I constantly feel like I’m not exercising Henry enough (he has A LOT of energy), I try my best to get him moving as often as possible because when I exercise him, I’m also exercising myself. I love going on long walks with him in my neighborhood, and although he used to be terrible at running when he was a puppy because he got too distracted and tripped me up, I’m anxious to try again this spring now that he’s stronger and more mature. Researchers from Michigan State University reported that since people who own dogs take them on walks, sixty percent of them meet national criteria for regular or moderate exercise. What’s more, nearly half of the dog owners in the study exercised an average of thirty minutes per day at least five days a week compared to only the third of people without dogs who exercised that much.
6. They're great wingmen
According to a new survey by Purina, you don’t need a great personality to fall in love, you need a dog. Their study found that "63 percent of people are likely to date someone who has a pet" and that "1 in 3 people would want to meet up with or talk to someone that has their pet in their dating website photo." Talk about puppy love! I must admit that walking Henry is quite the conversation starter – he is handsome and athletic, and everyone wants to meet him. A study by Warwick University in Britain also found that forty percent of people said making friends is easier with a dog.
Dogs are like stealth ninjas – they’re tricky, they play mind games, and they get all up in your head and heart. Even cooler, they’re good for you. They make you happy and healthy and everything in between. Adopting Henry was the best thing I ever did and I benefit from his existence every day mentally, physically, and emotionally.
Image: Rick Harris