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Dr. Kevin Most: Dogs Provide Comfort and Health Benefits

Dr. Kevin Most

I am fortunate to have always had a dog in my life. Growing up we always had a dog and currently have the pleasure of 3 golden retrievers. The reason I say fortunate is that there is a lot of data showing the health benefits from spending time with a pet and in many cases a dog in particular. 

Let’s go over a few and who knows maybe some of you will consider having a dog in your life soon.

If you had a dog growing up, chances are good that you don’t have allergies or if you do chances are they are a lot less severe than they would have been had you not been exposed to a dog as a child. A study published in the Journal Clinical and Experimental allergy showed that children who were exposed to pets before they were 6 months old were less likely to develop allergies, hay fever and eczema as they aged. They also found that these children had stronger immune system  and had fewer upper respiratory infections. Kids growing up on farms appear to have stronger immune systems than those raised in an urban setting.

A study published in Social Psychology found that dogs promote  psychological well being, particularly by lowering stress and boosting self esteem as well as feelings of autonomy. The calming presence of dogs and the social bonding that a dog delivers can impact the owners directly. Pets give individuals something to focus on that is positive versus the sometime negative thoughts an individual with depression may feel. When pets pay attention to you it gives you the feeling of unconditional love.

We know we have an issue with pain management in the US. A study out of Loyola showed that the patients who received pet therapy required less pain medications. The study showed a single visit from one of the pet therapy dogs showed a decreased need for pain medications when compared to those who did not have a pet therapy visit. We know that the simple act of petting a dog releases endorphins into our brain. These are the same hormones that give us pleasure and give runners that runner high. Endorphins are powerful pain relievers.  So having a dog around and interacting with them will help you deal with pain issues.

What about our heart? A study from the Journal of Critical Care showed that patients hospitalized for heart failure showed improved heart function when visited by a dog. Researchers from SUNY Buffalo showed that people taking medication for high blood pressure had a response to stress that was cut in half if they owned a dog. Research has also shown that the simple act of petting a dog will lower ones blood pressure.

We know the importance of exercise, it helps our heart, weight, blood pressure and stress. A study out of the University of Missouri showed that the best companion for a walk is not your spouse or your neighbor, it is actually your dog. The study showed that individuals who walked solely with a dog averaged 300 minutes a week of walking versus 168 minutes a week if they walked with others. The study also found that those who walked a dog hit the recommended level of physical activity for their age group 50% more often when compared to those walking without a dog. The studies also showed that individuals walking dogs had lower cholesterol levels and triglycerides.

The American Heart Association in 2013 reviewed many studies and concluded that having a dog is associated with a decreased risk of heart disease and an increased survival rate from those suffering from heart disease.

How about the benefits to children, besides the allergy benefit, we see more psychological benefits. Pets are a great tool or bridge when communicating with friends or adults. Studies have shown that children with dogs will interact with others often using the dog as a bridge. This has been shown to build relationships between children and their grandparents. Children will often use use the pet as a topic for discussion with the grandparent, this is an easy topic to discuss between the two who are decades apart in age. Children with pets will often have their first death experience with a pet and parents can use it as a learning experience.  Having a dog also teaches children responsibility as well as how to treat others with respect, kindness and caring attitudes.

Dogs will also help reduce stress in both adults and children. It has been shown to decrease the feelings of loneliness in adults and children. Having a friendly wagging dog greet you each day after work has been shown to lower cortisol, a stress related hormone. This fact has been used in veterans with PTSD with very positive results. It has also been shown to decrease anxiety and we are seeing more and more service animals with these individuals. Service dogs often allow patients to decrease or eliminate medications they needed in the past to control some of their psychological concerns.

PET Scans??

People often joke about PET scans and that it is actually a pet doing the scan. PET scans are an imaging tool that doctors use to often identify cancer spread or cancer at an early stage. What if I told you that a group of beagles are showing that dogs are actually better at identifying a specific lung cancer than any imaging equipment is. We know that dogs are great at sniffing things out. The dogs have  noses that are 10,000 times more sensitive than humans. They are used to find drugs and bombs in the law enforcement field with great accuracy. 

A study published last week shared the success that a group of beagles have in identifying lung cancer by smelling the blood of patients. the researchers trained the beagles for 8 weeks. They taught them to smell the difference between blood from healthy individuals and blood from patients with lung cancer. After the 8 weeks they brought them into a room with samples from lung cancer patients and healthy patients. The beagles identified the cancer accurately 97.5% of the time.  Researchers are now trying to figure out what the dogs can smell that identifies the cancer. Researchers are now working with dogs using the same idea on breast cancer and colon cancer.

Another study is looking at breath samples to see if dogs can identify by smelling the breath in place of blood samples. If this pans out the goal would be to make a simple test that would allow breaths to help diagnose cancer early.

Diabetic Dog Alert

One of the scary things about diabetes is the big swings in blood sugar that can have devastating outcomes. If your blood sugar drops to low you can die, if it goes to high it can cause a coma. Individuals with diabetes may live alone and really have no one looking out for them and may not know that their blood sugar is dropping. Diabetes alert dogs have been trained to smell when the blood sugar is dropping and have been taught to notify their owners by performing a predetermined task that tells the individual to eat now.

The ability for a dog to use it’s sense of smell to identify medical conditions is beyond a novelty and hopefully will be the basis for testing in the future as we identify exactly what it is the dogs are able to smell.

In the big picture dogs do a lot for our health personally as well as having the ability to diagnose diseases early and accurately. We will see more of this in the future.

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