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Feeling Down? Your Dog Offers More Help Than You Might Think

If you’ve got a companion animal in your life, there’s no doubt you understand the unconditional love and happiness they bring to each day. And if you don’t, there are plenty of reasons why you might want to.

Aside from being great friends, pets improve our lives by keeping us healthy in a surprising number of ways. From making sure their humans are active, to calming them down in times of stress, animals deserve more credit than they receive.

“We found that pet owners, on average, were better off than non-owners, especially when they have a higher-quality relationship with their pets,” researcher Allen R. McConnell, PhD told PetMD. “What [makes] a meaningful relationship varies from person to person.”

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It’s a role they’ve been filling for over 15,000 years, as our mutually beneficial relationship ensures they’ll be well fed and sheltered. In domesticating dogs, humankind has gained a friend for life, and for better lives. Out of the many benefits they provide us, here are a few to thank your faithful friend for:

7. Animals Keep Us Active

This is an obvious one, as dog owners across the globe can attest. The simple act of taking your pet out for a walk is doing far more than just fertilizing the lawn. though.

The health benefits of active movement for more than 30 minutes a day have been found to aid a number of conditions, including depression, anxiety, and PTSD, along with lowering blood pressure and regulating heart rate.

A 2011 blog post in the New York Times’ “Well” series asked the question whether those with companion animals get more exercise than they would have without pets. The answer is a resounding affirmative, with research from Michigan State University to back it up A majority of those who take their pets for regular walks are also logging what the federal government defines as “moderate or vigorous exercise.”

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“Walking is the most accessible form of physical activity available to people,” said Mathew Reeves, a professor in the Department of Epidemiology in the College of Human Medicine. “What we wanted to know was if dog owners who walked their dogs were getting more physical activity or if the dog-walking was simply a substitute for other forms of activity.”

According to Rebecca A. Johnson, director of the human-animal interaction research center at the University of Missouri College of Veterinary Medicine, there’s no downside to getting in as much leash time as you can.

“They help themselves by helping the dog,” Dr. Johnson told the New York Times. “If we’re committed to a dog, it enables us to commit to physical activity ourselves.”

6. Animals Improve Social Networking

Bringing your pet near other animals and humans is a good way to introduce them to positive social behavior, and it helps break down communication barriers in otherwise awkward situations.

“If I saw you walking down the street, I couldn’t comfortably start talking to you if I didn’t know you, but I could if you had a dog,” Alan Beck, ScD, director of the Center for the Human-Animal Bond at Purdue University, told WebMD. “It’s an acceptable interaction that otherwise wouldn’t be possible.”

Of course, socialization can mean a lot of different things to different dogs. The process of effectively socializing a dog can be a long and seemingly arduous one, and it can involve many different people, but the rewards are apparent in a closer bond between human and animal.

For the elderly, interaction with animals may be some of the most meaningful connections they make in a day. The comfort and happiness that comes with caring for an animal may contribute to our well-being at later stages in life much more than it contributes to theirs.

For those looking for outdoor options where animals and their owners can meet up, try searching for local training classes, dog parks, or pet friendly restaurants or cafes. Of course, make sure your pet is up to date on all pertinent shots before hitting the social scene.

5. Pets Decrease Stress

According to the National Center for Health Research, a 2002 study found that dog and cat owners had lower resting heart rates than those without pets, and were less susceptible to blood pressure irregularities when under stress.

“They also made fewer errors in their math when their pet was present in the room,” wrote Dana Casciotti, PhD and Diana Zuckerman, PhD. “All these findings indicated that having a dog or cat lowered the risk of heart disease, as well as lowering stress so that performance improved.”

WebMD reports that the companionship of an animal can lift our spirits as much as a close human friend. And

“Pets offer an unconditional love that can be very helpful to people with depression,” said Ian Cook, MD, a psychiatrist and director of the Depression Research and Clinic Program at UCLA.

By simply petting a cat or dog, our brains begin to release oxytocin, a hormone that lowers our stress levels. An article in Science even claims that this chemical process may have played a large role in the original domestication of animals. Whether or not early Mesolithic tribes kept their own house cats is yet to be found.

Here’s what most of my actual life looks like. #catlap #sweats #writerslife (photo by @greydamon)

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Matthew Russell is a West Michigan native and world traveler with a background in journalism, graphic design, and French pastry. He likes to learn new things whenever possible, and enjoys bicycling, going to the dog park, folk music and coffee.