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Health, The Mind

Is owning a dog is good for you? Separating howling myths from tail-wagging truths

Good doggyThere are some things in life no one ever teaches you. Like the etiquette of dog walking. As a reluctant dog owner of two years, the strange world of dog walkers still mystifies me. Should I let my dog sniff another dog’s crotch? Should I apologise when my dog barks at a stranger? Will the 6 foot, burly man with tattoos thump me if I ask him why he owns a dog as small as a hamster?

There are, however, less confusing truths about being a dog owner. Namely, that having a four-legged pet can be good for body and mind. On average, dog owners walk 25% more than non-dog owners – an extra mile a week. It’s not enough to give you a six-pack, but it could be enough to keep fitness levels up if you don’t get out much.

In fact, ever since we first crawled out of caves, dogs have been at our side. The best estimates say that we started domesticating dogs some 30,000 years ago and it seems that this ageless companionship helps many of us cope with life’s hardships today.

Research shows that having a pet dog can be particularly good for those who are socially isolated or lonely, protecting them from depression. 90% of pet owners consider their pet as a valued family member and in certain situations, animals can improve quality of life dramatically, hence why pet therapy is now a regular feature in many care homes.

Owning a dog isn’t for everyone, mind you. You may have heard reports that owning a dog will lower your blood pressure and cholesterol or prevent you a heart attack. These stories are almost certainly overblown, due to the media’s liking to only air pro-pet research. Dogs aren’t prescribed like medicine because the emotional cost and commitment they taken can be too much for some. And let’s face it, some people just don’t like animals.

But for those of you who own a dog, you should be a little cautious about getting too friendly with scruffy – at least without some good hand hygiene. If you’ve had a tummy bug recently, then your mutt could be the cause, according to newly published research. Preliminary scientific work by a PhD student at University College London has discovered that dogs are able to harbour one of the nastiest diarrhoea and vomiting bugs on the planet – norovirus. Known for causing horrendous bouts of ‘D and V’, the virus spreads like wildfire and if you catch it, could leave you on the khazi for hours. There are also a host of other nasties that can be spread if you aren’t careful about cleaning up your dog’s doo-doos. Just a tiny fleck of poop, therefore, could be all it takes to leave you feeling worse than a night of strong curry and beer. Oh, and please don’t leave bags of dog mess on park benches or hanging from a tree. It’s a serious health hazard.

Infection risks aside, there is still much to be gained from the exercise and emotional camaraderie that owning a dog can bring. As someone who has never liked dogs, you could say that I have seen the light. I just have to learn to forget about the endless need to hover up dog hair, walking in the rain when everyone sensible is watching the TV and trying to read the post after it’s been torn to shreds. Oh, and always remember to smile at the big man with the tiny dog.

Thanks for reading – all opinions expressed are my own. Feel free to add your thoughts in the comments below.

Photo credit: p2-r2 via Flickr

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About Stuart Farrimond

I love writing about science and health subjects. Strange, because I also teach the same things. I trained as a medical doctor before turning my hand to other things. Shortlisted for The Guardian/Observer for Science Writer of the Year 2011 and editor for Guru Magazine I also like to grow large pumpkins...

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