Here at the Dog Blog I am pleased to have a great guest post by Matt Papa. Take some time to read it, you will find it extremely interesting reading and very well written indeed.
One of the finest characteristics of human nature is our ability to form bonds of attachment and empathy with other species. The instinct to care for and protect the “lesser” creatures is not that distant from the instinct to protect our own children, after all. And millions of pet owners can attest to the enormous emotional return they receive from their animal friends, whether dogs or cats or cockatoos or boa constrictors.
Some psychologists and biologists have postulated a theory of “biophilia,” which holds that human beings have an innate need and desire to maintain or reestablish meaningful connections with a world around and outside us that is not just human [1, 2]. Whether it is a need for “wildness” or to feel oneself a part of the larger bio-environment, as we find our daily lives grow increasingly remote from nature, there may be a compensatory need to maintain contact through our relationships with the more instinctual lives of animals.
This is clearly not a purely selfless or altruistic trait among human beings. It may be difficult to quantify the emotional comfort pets bring, but there is actually a significant body of scientific research that is measuring and explaining at least some of the benefits pets bring to our lives. For instance, there is evidence that pet owners have lower blood pressure and also lower cholesterol and triglyceride levels, which reduces their risk of developing cardiovascular disease. One study found that when pet-dog owners do have heart attacks, their survival rates are higher than those who do not own a dog . Their mental stress is lower overall, self-esteem is better, and they are less likely to be lonely and depressed.
Dogs as Social Supports for Health
A lot of this can be summed up by the idea that pets provide an important source of social support for very many people. They offer nonjudgmental companionship and acceptance of a sort we find in few people. Few stories are more touching than the tales of “therapy” dogs and cats who are taken to nursing homes and hospitals to entertain and comfort the elderly and sick. And there is a growing body of research on the very practical part that dogs in particular can play in improving the physical fitness of their humans and even helping us lose weight.
For instance, a recent research project called PPET—“People and Pets Exercising Together”—studied whether overweight people with dogs who followed a program of diet and exercise would lose more weight than overweight people without dogs following the same program . It is widely acknowledged that the encouragement, support and companionship of other people are significant factors in helping people stick with exercise and weight loss programs. The PPET researchers theorized that the companionship or “social support” of the dogs could perform an equivalent function.
The PPET study results clearly supported the hypothesis that dogs can play a significant role in motivating owners to get more exercise. For starters, they found that people with dogs were already getting more exercise than people without dogs. And at the study’s conclusion, several participants explicitly affirmed that their dogs were major factors in increasing and maintaining their exercise program. People were also encouraged by the fact that they were helping their pets: “Knowing I could do something good for my dog was a motivating factor.”
Another study confirmed that having a dog that requires daily exercise can play a positive role in improving their owners health and activity level: “Many exercise programs to prevent overweight seem to fail because of the lack of urgency to comply with the exercise regimen and owning a dog may be one way to increase compliance,” the researchers conclude . Dogs, after all, can be very persistent in encouraging their humans to get up and move!
These benefits are lifelong. A 2008 study that asked “Is dog ownership or dog walking associated with weight status in children and adults?” found that the chances a child would be overweight or obese were indeed lower for those who owned a dog . At the other end of life, studies confirm that elderly people with dogs keep walking and maintain their mobility far more successfully than people who lack that stimulus to remain active.
So dogs are doubly motivating for people to get exercise. On the one hand, the affection and responsibility people feel for the wellbeing of their pets encourages many otherwise sedentary people to leave the house and at least walk around the block several times a day. While for people who want to get out and exercise for their own sakes but have trouble sticking to a routine, their dogs provide a consistent source of encouragement and companionship that can make that activity much more enjoyable .
The Dual Obesity Epidemic
Much of the research being done has obviously emphasized the benefits that dog-ownership can bring to people. But the mutual relationship these studies demonstrate also highlights another less happy form of mutuality between people and their pets.
It seems that obesity among dogs and other household pets is rapidly catching up to obesity rates among humans—itself widely recognized as a serious public health crisis. A recent study found that there is a significant correlation between the Body Mass Index (BMI) of owners and the weight of their dogs . The sad fact is, overweight humans are likely to have overweight dog, and vice versa. It seems that we can love our pets too much, or in the wrong ways.
So much in our culture teaches that “food is love,” and there is no question that our dogs love to eat every bit as much as we do. We love to “treat” our pets with food that has become richer and special treats that are even higher in calories. The result? 84 million overweight or obese pets in the United States alone. And too few people even realize that obesity is as serious a health risk for their pets as it is for them, contributing to osteoarthritis, diabetes, respiratory and heart ailments and a shorter life span.
It’s highly encouraging then that exercise programs can provide major benefits for the dogs as well as the people. If one or both of you are overweight, you will undoubtedly need to adopt dietary restrictions as well as a more aggressive exercise program if you want to lose a significant amount of weight. But playing and exercising with your pet is a total win-win experience for both parties. It will support and encourage you in keeping or getting more fit and active and it will improve your pet’s health, fitness and happiness at the same time. If you won’t do it for yourself, do it for the dog you love.
1. Wilson, Edwin O., Biophilia (Harvard University Press 1984)
2. Fromm, Erich, The Heart of Man (Harper & Row 1964)
3. “Dog ownership, health and physical activity: A critical review of the literature.” Cutt, H., Giles-Corti, B., Knuiman, M., Burke, V. Health & Place 2007; 13(1):261–272
4. ”The PPET Study: People and Pets Exercising Together,” by Kushner, R.F., Blatner, D.J., Jewell, D.E., and Rudloff, K. Obesity 2006 Oct;14(10).
5. “Is dog ownership or dog walking associated with weight status in children and their parents?” Timperio, A., Salmon, J., Chu, B., Andrianopoulos. N. Health Promot J Austr. 2008 Apr; 19(1):60-3.
6. “Dog ownership, walking behavior, and maintained mobility in late life.” Thorpe R.J., Jr, Simonsick, E.M., Brach, J.S., Ayonayon, H., Satterfield, S., Harris, T.B., Garcia. M., Kritchevsky, S.B. J Am Geriatr Soc. 2006 Sep; 54(9): 1419-24.
7. “Overweight in dogs but not in cats is related to overweight in their owners.” Marieke L. Nijland, M. L., Stam, F., and Seidell, J.C. Public Health and Nutrition 2009 Jun 23:1-5.
About the author:
Matt Papa is a medical researcher (and human companion to Hera, his German shepherd) at Washington University School of Medicine. He has recently developed a particular interest in research on how obesity in dogs and humans is affected by similar factors: food management, exercise and social factors. In his website, weightlosstriumph.com, Matt enjoys writing weight loss plan reviews and offering coupon codes for Medifast, a medically approved weight loss program.