which pet is better for your health?


Scientists in Tokyo recently discovered that owning a dog of any breed reduces the risk of older people getting dementia by 40 per cent, as it increases the likelihood of getting out of the house, which leads to more interactions with other people and in turn exercises the brain. 

While owners may complain about cold, wet dog walks, they are doing good. A 2017 study published in the journal BMC Public Health examined the influence of dog ownership in older adults. It found that canine owners spent an additional 22 minutes a day walking, taking 2,760 more steps a day, and sat down significantly less. Furthermore, a 2019 paper in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health found that the odds of a dog owner meeting physical activity guidelines of 150 minutes a week are four times greater than their non-owning counterparts, plus they’re more likely to walk even without the dog. Extra exercise has a knock-on positive effect of burning more calories and improved sleep.  “I need to get another dog,” one friend told me ruefully this week. “My health is suffering without one – I’m just not taking enough exercise anymore.” 

Mental health in older adults can also be given a boost by a four-legged friend, as highlighted by a 2019 study from the Aging and Mental Health Journal, which found dogs provided companionship, gave a sense of purpose and meaning, reduced loneliness and increased socialisation.

That was the case for Outi and Brian Hubbard, who got their rescue dog Lily when their daughter moved out – taking her dog with her. “We were faced with a house with no dog bowls and it felt like the soul of our home had been ripped out,” says Outi (64). Brian, 66, had recently retired, while Outi was continuing to commute from Hereford to London a couple of days a week. Lily gives Brian company while his wife is away and is a sunny presence. “She sleeps under our bed, and every morning she emerges, tail wagging, so happy to see you – there are no conditions attached.” Lily keeps them fit and healthy, getting two long walks a day. The dog’s location tracker on her collar has provided an unexpected bonus for Outi: “I can see where Brian is all the time.” 

Prof Daniel Mills, one of the authors of the 2017 study, agrees. Dog ownership offers “safety, security and consistency”, he says. “You can confide in your pet, and know they’re not going to let you down.”

Dogs have also been found to positively impact children, both when it comes to anxiety levels and blood pressure and heart rates. “It’s well recognised that people see pets as members of the family, particularly in Western cultures,” says Prof Mills. “Our dog smiles and ‘talks’ to us when we walk in the door,” says my friend Meiken Greenamyre of her pet Orly. “The girls come home and go right to her, especially our youngest. It’s her downtime after school. We’ve always had dogs, and the kids have always gone to them instinctively when they are stressed.” 

Looking at my own newly acquired puppy – currently chewing up the house while we wait for her to have her last vaccination and be allowed outside – I’m looking forward to being able to take her out for a long walk. But she can also be a cause of anxiety: on day one, she chewed through the ethernet cable, on another, she pooed all over the curtains. She is, however, considerably less stressful than our late cat, who gave my son fleas, got stuck up a tree for two days and eventually disappeared, leaving us all terribly worried, and then devastated when we discovered she’d been run over. 


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