Having a guard dog for the house is always a good idea. But how about having a guard dog for health? For years, researchers have been studying the effects of pets on health, and — especially with canine companions — the results are definitely something to woof about.

Paw-sitivity — The Takeaway

Dog In Shades

From mini to gigantic, studies show that these four-legged friends can affect health in a many ways. A number of studies have found that dog owners are more likely to lead active lives than those without petsInfluence of companion animals on the physical and psychological health of older people: an analysis of a one-year longitudinal study. Raina, P., Waltner-Toews, D., Bonnett, B., et al. Department of Population Medicine, University of Guelph, Ontario, Canada. Journal of the American Geriatrics Society 1999 Mar;47(3):323-9.. More than simply serving as partners in crazy adventures, dogs can have some more concrete benefits, like helping reduce cholesterol and lower blood pressureCompanion animals and human health: an overview. Edney, A.T. The Veterinary Record, 1992 Apr 4;130(14):285-7.. And some canines can even predict the future (kind of). Research suggests that some dogs have been able to detect serious illnesses — including epilepsy and even cancer — in their owners before any symptoms appearDogs as a diagnostic tool for ill health in humans. Wells, D.L. School of Psychology, Queen’s Univesrity, Belfast, Northern Ireland, UK. Alternative Therapies in Health and Medicine, 2012 Mar-Apr;18(2):12-7.Companion animals and human health: an overview. Edney, A.T. The Veterinary Record 1992 Apr 4;130(14):285-7..

But beyond the physical health benefits, dogs can help with happiness, too. (Did we really have to say that?) Research suggests dog owners are less stressed out than their puppy-less counterpartsCompanion animals and human health: an overview. Edney, A.T. The Veterinary Record 1992 Apr 4;130(14):285-7.. Other studies have found pet owners to have higher self-esteem and overall better well-being, and that pets can actually provide social support (and even moreso when paired with support by human friends)Friends with benefits: on the positive consequences of pet ownership. McConnel, A.R., Brown, C.M., Shoda, T.M. et al. Department of Psychology, Miami University, Oxford, Ohio. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 2011 Dec;101(6):1239-52.. And they’re often used in therapy sessions with patients suffering from loneliness and depressionThe effects of animal-assisted therapy on loneliness in an elderly population in long-term care facilities. Banks, M.R., Banks, W.A. Nursing Service, Veterans Affairs Medical Center, St. Louis, Missouri. The Journals of Gerontology. Series A, Biological Sciences and Medical Sciences, 2002 Jul;57(7):M428-32.. This one-on-one time with a furry friend, guided by a medical professional, can help develop empathy and camaraderie between owner and petAnother breed of “service” animals: STARS study findings about pet ownership and recovery from serious mental illness. Wisdom, J.P., Saedi, G.A., Green, C.A. Department of Mental Health Services and Policy Research, New York State Psychiatric Institute. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry 2009 Jul;79(3):430-6.. But don’t run out to the pet store just yet — while some research has suggested dogs can boost happiness, one study did find that spending time around a happy person may be just as effectiveA dog and a “happy person” visit nursing home residents. Kaiser, L., Spence, L.J., McGavin, L., et al. College of Nursing, Michigan State University, East Lansing, Michigan. Western Journal of Nursing Research, 2002 Oct;24(6):671-83..

The Tip

Even though pets have been shown to lead to healthier lives, just owning one doesn’t guarantee a happy and healthy life. Pets are great motivators, but not anything like drill sergeants.

Originally posted June 2011. Updated May 2012.