Family & Wellness Links


Human plus canine = better health?

Whether for companionship or comedic relief, having a dog makes a difference.

By Anna Gamboa Gan

JUNE 2013

It may not be news for a few pet owners, but plenty of ears pricked up at the statement released by the American Heart Association (AHA) on Circulation last May, relaying findings about the positive health benefits of having a dog or cat. Part of the significant results: Out of 5,741 participants at a free screening clinic, male (but not female) dog owners had significantly but clinically modestly lower total cholesterol and triglyceride levels than non-dog owners. The same statement also mentioned how the latter group were more likely to suffer from higher cholesterol levels and diabetes, and for some reason, tobacco use was more common among dog non-owners than dog owners.

Perks and treats

Wellness speaker Harriet Hormillosa of RCW Foundation, a dog lover herself, cites the benefit of owning dogs—that is, enjoying their unconditional affection. Only the hard-hearted wouldn’t feel elation at being greeted like a rock star after a tiring day at work.

Brian Baquiran, a director for research and development for a software solutions company, had his first dog at age 6, and recently adopted his godfather’s two dogs after the latter passed away. “A big perk of being a dog owner is the companionship. You will never have to go to the bathroom alone!” he says with a wry smile. Chef Joey Herrera phrases his appreciation differently: “[I]f your dog is a pit bull, or any other bully breed, you have your very own slapstick comedian who is happy to be paid in dog food.”

Why do dog owners seem to enjoy the added benefit of being healthier? Baquiran inadvertently supplies the answer, by citing how pet ownership provides everyday structure. “You get up, take the dogs out to do their business. You walk them in the afternoon or early evening if you can. Feed them on a schedule, etc.” Indeed, several studies point to how dog owners who walk their own pets achieve better health compared to other types of pet owners, possibly due to the consistent exercise achieved daily.

Adopt or buy?

The AHA issues a caveat, however: that people hoping to improve their cardiovascular health are better off taking on dietary and lifestyle changes, rather than rushing out to add a dog to their household.

Having grown up with a variety of dogs and assorted pets, Herrera advises, “Adopt when you can. And neuter or spay your dog—unless you have space [and resources] to raise puppies.”
Whether you buy your dog from a pet shop or breeder, or go to a shelter to adopt your pet or inherit one from a friend or family member, it pays to know what you’re getting into. “A responsible dog owner should learn as much about dogs, dog behavior, health and training before getting a dog,” shares Baquiran. “I nerded out big time on my first dog and did research for a full year, buying books on dog behavior and training from Amazon, joining dog forums and mailing lists, etc. I reviewed the operant conditioning [work by B.F. Skinner] and ordered a video from Turid Rugaas who was doing some groundbreaking stuff on calming signals.”

Herrera understood what he was getting into when he sought out a reputable breeder for a pit bull puppy, whose philosophy was centered on exercise, discipline and good nutrition. The breed was chosen after careful research due to its strong drive to please its masters. “If your dog sees you are pleased when he is kind and good-natured, he’ll make it his life’s mission [to behave the way you want him to].” After observing the puppy’s parents for their sweet and gentle nature, he chose the least barky puppy, named him Starfish, and proceeded to train.

Raising a good dog

“Puppies will cry multiple times at night to be brought to the litter box to pee,” relates Herrera humorously. “[Y]ou have to be enthusiastic and shower them with praise no matter how sleepy you are. I never imagined I would be holding a peeing puppy at 4:00 a.m., half-asleep, chanting ‘Good boy, Starfish, good boy!’” The pit bull is now considered the lucky charm of Herrera’s family that will soon be celebrating the arrival of a baby.

Coco, one of Baquiran’s adopted dogs, was in dire need of training due to her abandonment issues and toilet habits. But with patience and time, she unlearned her bad habits and is a hit with the neighborhood kids who ask permission to play with her every so often. The loveable yellow Lab is also the focus of Baquiran’s normally taciturn father’s affection whenever he arrives at the house.

Baquiran adds, “Consider also how the dog will affect your lifestyle. How much time can you devote to your pet? Some dogs do okay on their own, others can get destructive or develop obsessive behaviors. ... If you're considering specific breeds or a mix of two breeds, research the breed's particular temperament, health issues, [and so on].”

It has often been said that while we don’t choose the family we are born in, it’s our privilege to be able to choose our friends. This couldn’t be truer in the case of dogs, rightly christened “man’s best friends.” Whether they serve as four-legged comedic relief or as a part of your home security measures, they’re there to love—and be loved.

Find out more about puppy love and what it can do for your health in the June issue of
HealthToday, out now in newsstands and bookstores.

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