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7 Ways Dogs Can Help Your Health

Janie Airey/Lifesize/Thinkstock(SAN FRANCISCO) -- Dogs may be good at more than fetching sticks and greeting you after a long day at work. As it turns out, simply having them around may lessen your kids' chances of getting the common cold.

Owning a dog may improve the health of children in that household, according to new research from the University of California, San Francisco. In a study of mice, researchers found that the house dust from homes with dogs worked to protect against a common cold strain, the respiratory syncytial virus.

"Mice aren't identical to humans. There are obvious differences," explains Dr. Susan Lynch, co-investigator of the study and a professor at UCSF. "But we can do things in the animals that we could not possibly do in humans, and we can get samples to examine disease that would be very difficult to assess in humans."

Animals fed house dust from dog-owning homes did not exhibit the usual symptoms of RSV, including mucus production and lung inflammation. In fact, their symptoms were comparable to animals that weren't exposed to the virus in the first place.

So what's the big deal about RSV? It's a virus to which almost everybody has been exposed within the first few years of life. However, it can be severe -- and sometimes fatal -- in premature and chronically ill infants. It is the leading cause of bronchiolitis, which is an inflammation of the small airways in the lung, as well as pneumonia in children under 1 year of age in the United States, and it is associated with increased risk of developing asthma.

What excited researchers is that this work may help explain why pet ownership has been associated with protection against childhood asthma in the past. Their thought process is as follows: exposure to animals early in life helps "train" the immune system, which plays an integral part in asthma development. In short, there is reason to believe that germs, such as those associated with dogs, may be good for children's health under certain circumstances.

"Everybody appreciates the fact that we're all missing something big in asthma," says Dr. Robert Mellins, a pediatric pulmonologist at Columbia University in New York. "People have appreciated that viral infections clearly have an association, and this kind of experiment is interesting because it suggests a mechanism of how that could come about."

The study is far from the first to suggest the health benefits of having a canine in the family. The following are six other ways that owning a dog may improve your health and well-being.

Dogs and Cardiovascular Health

Could owning a dog keep your heart healthy? Research has supported a connection between owning a dog and reduced risk of cardiovascular problems, including high blood pressure and elevated cholesterol levels. In addition, a study published in the American Journal of Cardiology found that male dog owners were less likely to die within one year after a heart attack than those who did not own a dog.

Dogs and Anxiety

For people with all forms of anxiety, having a dog may be an important coping mechanism. This is especially true in times of crisis. A study out of the Medical College of Virginia found that for hospitalized patients with mental health issues, therapy with animals significantly reduced anxiety levels more than conventional recreational therapy sessions.

Dogs and Loneliness

Dogs function as important companions and family members, but certain groups may benefit more than others. The elderly, particularly those in residential care facilities, often become socially isolated once separated from immediate family. Researchers in Australia have found that dogs improved the well-being of residents by promoting their capacity to build relationships.

Dogs and Rehabilitation

In the setting of a severe illness or prolonged hospitalization, therapy dogs can be integral in the process of rehabilitation. A review of the literature looking at the function of service dogs proved that dogs can assist people with various disabilities in performing everyday activities, thereby significantly reducing their dependence on others.

Dogs and Activity

Before a dog is introduced into the home, the most commonly asked question is, "Who is going to walk the dog?" Turns out this responsibility may be important for the health of the family as well as the dog. Studies from the American Journal of Public Health and the American Journal of Preventive Medicine have shown that children with dogs spend more time doing moderate to vigorous activity than those without dogs, and adults with dogs walk on average almost twice as much as adults without dogs.

Dogs and Doctors

With all of these specific health benefits, could dogs keep you away from the doctor altogether? A national survey out of Australia found that dog and cat owners made fewer annual doctor visits and generally had significantly lower use of general practitioner services.

Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio

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