Are Dogs Good for Our Health?

We’re used to reading that they are, but it’s more complicated than you think.

A young woman and her dog play with a stick in the park
Photo: legenda / Shutterstock

By Zazie Todd, PhD

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A new study by González Ramírez and Landero Hernández in Mexico compares dog-owners with non-dog-owners to find out whether or not dogs are beneficial to people’s health and well-being. They wanted to improve on the design of many previous studies by comparing two groups of people who were similar except for the fact that some owned dogs and some did not.

There are several reasons why pets might be good for us. It could be that we have an instinctive bond with nature, and so the company of animals lowers stress and makes us feel better. This is the biophilia hypothesis, which also says we have an especial liking for baby-faced animals, which has an evolutionary advantage. An alternative idea is that animals provide social support themselves and also encourage interactions with other people, thus making us less lonely and helping us to have better mental health.

602 people took part and answered a set of questions including standardized measures of perceived life satisfaction, health, happiness and stress. The dog-owners completed an extra set of questions about their relationship with the dog. The two groups of participants were matched in terms of age, gender, level of education, marital status, whether or not they had children, and the proportion that had a chronic health condition. 

The results are very interesting because they show that the groups differ in some ways, but are similar in others. The people who had dogs had better scores on measures of stress, mental health and general health.  But the two groups did not differ in terms of how happy they are, their satisfaction with life, or in some other aspects of their physical health.

The scientists say their results support the biophilia hypothesis that interactions with animals reduce stress and anxiety. Because the two groups were the same on measures of happiness and satisfaction with life, the social support hypothesis is not supported by these results. 

One thing that may have influenced the results is that about two-thirds of the dogs lived in the yard or garage. Just under half of the dog-owners said their dog was a member of the family (47%), a third that it was a pet (36%) and 12% described their dog as a watch-dog. Only a third of the dogs slept in the house at night (7% in the owner’s bed, 9% in the bedroom and 15% elsewhere in the house). The results may be different for people whose dogs live in the house, as they may have a closer relationship with their dog.

Hal Herzog says people are more aware of research that finds pets are good for our health than that with negative findings – in part because of publication biases towards significant results, and in part because the media is more likely to pick up the positive stories. If you really want to know if owning a pet makes a difference to people’s health then you have to do a randomized controlled trial, he says, the same as you would for a new drug. This is obviously tricky in real life, and impossible to do ‘blind’ since people would know if they had a pet or not. 

Although this study is not a randomized controlled trial, it is an improvement on many other studies because the two groups of participants were matched on some important variables. The results show a correlation and do not prove causality. For example, people’s health may be a factor in their decision as to whether or not to get a dog.

This study found that although dog owners perceived themselves to be healthier than those without dogs, there was no difference in happiness. This will be a surprise to many animal lovers, but it shows that the relationship between people and animals cannot easily be generalized.

Do you think owning a pet, or not owning a pet, influences your health and happiness?

Zazie Todd, PhD, is the award-winning author of Wag: The Science of Making Your Dog Happy and Purr: The Science of Making Your Cat Happy. She is the creator of the popular blog, Companion Animal Psychology, writes The Pawsitive Post premium newsletter, and also has a column at Psychology Today. Todd lives in Maple Ridge, BC, with her husband, one dog, and two cats. 

Useful links:

González Ramírez, M., & Landero Hernández, R. (2014). Benefits of dog ownership: Comparative study of equivalent samples Journal of Veterinary Behavior: Clinical Applications and Research, 9 (6), 311-315 DOI: 10.1016/j.jveb.2014.08.002  
Herzog, H. (2011). The Impact of Pets on Human Health and Psychological Well-Being: Fact, Fiction, or Hypothesis? Current Directions in Psychological Science, 20 (4), 236-239 DOI: 10.1177/0963721411415220

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Do Dogs With Baby Expressions Get Adopted Sooner, and What Does It Say About Domestication?

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