Feb. 1, 2017

Dog’s best friend: The many upsides of dog ownership

Research shows that more than companionship, owning a dog also benefits our mental and physical well-being.

There are almost six million pooches living with people across the country. More than a third of Canadian homes have a dog and each of them could list off advantages of having a pet. And increasingly, researchers are documenting the health and other benefits of having a dog.

“Owning a dog can be very beneficial to human health and well-being,” says Dr. Terri Schiller, a small animal surgeon and associate dean (clinical programs) at the Faculty of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Calgary. “Your dog gets you outside, loves you unconditionally and will make you smile. Owners want their dogs to be happy, healthy and active.”

Schiller’s work improving hip replacement surgeries in dogs helps them get back to an active lifestyle which keeps the humans in the house active too. “Dogs with bad hips can’t function,” she says. “They’re in pain, they don’t exercise.” But a successful hip replacement gives dogs a chance to have an active, pain free lifestyle. “We’re keeping dogs healthy and active so they can keep you staying healthy and active too,” Schiller says.

Having a dog improves mental health, well-being and physical activity partly because it gets people out of the house for regular walks. “There’s actually some really good research that suggests there are benefits of dog ownership,” says Eloise Carr, a professor in the Faculty of Nursing at the University of Calgary.

Carr and her colleagues from the Faculties of Veterinary Medicine and Arts (sociology) and the Cumming School of Medicine are working with other Alberta researchers to study whether people who suffer from chronic pain feel better when they have a dog. They’re surveying people with chronic pain – both those with and without dogs – and monitoring their health.

“Chronic pain is a massive burden on society,” she says. “It costs billions of dollars a year in Canada and across the world in terms of health care and lost productivity and it’s going to get worse as the population ages.”

Exercise helps people with chronic pain feel more comfortable, but they’re reluctant to do it. “They don’t want to exercise; they’re sore, they hurt,” says Carr. “But they see their dog and they have a responsibility so it makes them go out.”

“People who have chronic pain tend to be socially isolated,” says Carr. “Not wanting to be outside of your own home or immediate family environment is one of the factors of having chronic pain and often it’s accompanied by depression and anxiety.”

Having a dog is known to reduce that social isolation and provide company. “It’s a companion, it’s a distraction, it’s a way of helping them cope with pain sometimes,” she says. “I have a patient who talks about her dogs often lying on her ankles and feet, it’s a great comfort.”

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Dr. Terri Schiller is a board specialized small animal surgeon and Associate Dean (Clinical Programs) at UCalgary's Faculty of Veterinary Medicine. Her clinical practice focuses on the delivery and teaching of small animal orthopedic surgery and canine total hip replacement. View her publications

Eloise Carr is a professor in the Faculty of Nursing at the University of Calgary. She supervises masters and doctoral students with an interest in her research areas of pain management, interprofessional education, mixed methods research and knowledge translation. View her publications


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