MedCity Influencers

Want to stay healthy? Think about getting a dog

A new study suggests owning a dog can significantly reduce the risk of a cardiovascular-related death. I challenge you to show me any drug or surgery that does the same without side effects and at a comparable cost.

This Thanksgiving, after the obligatory watching of the Macy’s Day parade, I stayed tuned to watch the 2017 National Dog Show.  I have mixed feelings about the dog show, I admit.  On the one hand, it is a giant cute fest and I love the dogs, especially the Frenchie and the Sheepdog and who wouldn’t love the Komondor with its crazy floor-length dreadlocks and potential to double as an industrial mop.  On the other hand, I hate that these dogs get manhandled in weird ways that must make them feel like some of the women who co-starred with Jeremy Piven lately – they want the people in charge to stop handling their nether regions but are entirely clear who feeds them.

Despite this, I was particularly delighted to see the Brussels Griffon win yesterday. Named Newton, he was by far the smallest finalist and beat out a field of dogs, any of which could have flicked him into oblivion with a small move of the paw.  I always find it gratifying when the shortest, least obvious one wins in any fight, as you can imagine.  Unlike his competition, he had to be lifted up to the podium to be judged.  I can so relate.  If you’re really short, sometimes you have to try especially hard to be seen –  when it pays off, #winning!  And I especially love that this dog is named after one of history’s great scientists who characterized gravity, the nature of light, the laws of motion, and calculus.  Ok, I’ll forgive him for calculus.

Dogs are such an interesting topic of conversation, as no one has mild feelings.  People love them or can’t stand them; can’t live without them or would never want to have one.  Many dog-lovers will admit to loving their dog more than most people.  Given how most people behave, I totally understand this.

Considering all of the money and time we spend on medical research to extend life in this country, and the additional cost much of this research adds to the healthcare expense when brought to practice, it always amazes me when we overlook the simple, free things.  And dogs are clearly one of them.  In the most recent study of its type, published in the Journal of Scientific Reports, it was demonstrated that for people living alone, having a dog can decrease your risk of death by 33 percent and reduce your risk of cardiovascular-related death by 36% -this is in contrast to people who live alone and don’t have a pet.

I challenge you to show me any drug or surgery that does the same without side effects and at a comparable cost.

The study, called “Dog ownership and the risk of cardiovascular disease and death – a nationwide cohort study,” demonstrated a profound impact not just for single people, but also for multi-person homes; for this group there is an 11 percent decrease in residents’ chance of death with a dog at home and a 15 percent lower chance of death due to cardiovascular disease.  I guess the impact is lesser than for single people because sometimes your family just drives you to the brink no matter how much the counter-effect of your pup.

Oddly enough, the study did show that owning a hunting dog (aka Setters, Spaniels, Pointers, Beagles and Golden Retrievers, among others) was associated with lowest risk of cardiovascular disease.  Who knows why?  Perhaps it is because they need to be walked a ton and thus owners get their steps in when taking care of those particular types.  Lord knows my chihuahua (aka a member of the toy group at the dog show) needs to be walked only as far as the edge of the couch before she is ready to turn back around.

The dog study’s results are not that surprising to me given what is already known about the damage done to people by loneliness.  I have written about this previously HERE, but the bottom line is this: people who are lonely have the same health risk as people who smoke 15 cigarettes a day.  Loneliness is also highly correlated with increased cardiovascular disease and premature death.

FYI, I am guessing that this research does not deliver quite the same results with cats.  They do address the loneliness challenge but they often rush between your legs when you’re on the stairs, increasing your odds of premature death.  They are known to laugh when this happens.

While I am as big an advocate as anyone of the value of new science and technology, we should remember that there is already a whole lot of science and technology out there that we don’t take full advantage of in the medical system (e.g., 50% of drugs prescribed are not taken). At the same time, we have other things we could prescribe that people will be much happier to take, like a walk with a dog.  So at this holiday time of year, which can massively amplify the loneliness and depression factor, consider hugging a dog.  And if you don’t have one, maybe offer to walk a neighbor’s dog or volunteer at your local Humane Society so you can sneak hugs on the fly.  It’s a lot cheaper than drugs or surgery and the side effects are largely saliva-related (theirs, not yours).

And yes, I welcome dog photos in the comments section.

Photo: Antiochus by Stephanie Baum

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