Mental Health Benefits of Owning a Dog

May 31, 2018

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Since May of 1949, Mental Health Awareness Month has been observed in the United States to help to bring media and public attention to mental health through local events, new coverage & the encouragement of professional screening.

Mental Health America, a national non-profit organization helps to coordinate and promote the need for mental health awareness. Each year this organization selects a theme for Mental Health Awareness Month, with 2018’s theme being “#4Mind4Body Fitness Challenge”.

Mental health is affected by exercise, diet & nutrition, sleep, stress and the gut-brain connection. Admittedly it can be difficult to provide yourself with care in all these areas but, your secret power to accomplishing success in each of these areas just might be sitting at your feet right now.

It’s been long proven that dogs are excellent for mental health, but just how beneficial are they and how do they help to make your mind, body, and soul better? Using the suggested four areas of Mental Health America’s campaign for achieving a healthier body and mind, we examine how your four-legged best friend can help you to accomplish the goal of living a more mentally (and physically) healthier lifestyle.

Exercise & Outdoor Benefits

Owning a dog is a guarantee that you will be headed outside at least three to four times per day. They hold you accountable for exiting your home and getting out into the great outdoors by taking them for a walk. Exteriorizing with your dog will help you to have an overall mood boost that otherwise would not be provided by simply staying indoors.

Getting out into the sunshine & clouds boosts your natural Vitamin D levels which help to improve your body’s immune system, including brain function. In one study, simple exercise, such as walking or running around the yard with a dog, has similar results of reducing symptoms of the anxiety as cognitive behavior therapy.

People who make regular exercise such as walking or jogging with their dog, are less likely to suffer from depression, panic disorders or extreme fear or phobias.

Other fun exercise activities to experience with your dog:

Doggie & Me Yoga – you and your dog can participate in dog appropriate yoga movements
Hiking – local parks, state or national parks often have dog-friendly trails
Water Activities – Kayaking, swimming or training your dog in the sport of dock diving
Agility Training – Owners guide their dogs through a series of tunnels, jumps & other obstacles

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Diet & Nutrition

We all know that sticking to a healthy diet can be challenging. So challenging that owners even have a hard time with keeping their pets on a diet, not to mention themselves. The U.S. currently has roughly 53% of its dogs falling into the overweight or obese category according to the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention.

Just like in pets, poor diet and nutrition can lead to diabetes, heart disease, obesity and some cancers in people. These illnesses can play a major role in affecting the mental health of humans. Luckily there are easy steps that can be taken to improve both your nutrition and your pet’s. Think of your pet as your new diet buddy.

Just like us, dogs should avoid consuming highly processed, fried or sugary foods. All those heavy, unhealthy foods can create an increased risk of depression for humans and cause stomach upset and urinary issues in dogs.

Foods that are lacking in important nutrients such as omega-3, vitamin D & B group vitamins affect dogs and people as well. Reduced brain health, joint problems, immune function and many other issues arise without a balanced and healthy diet for both canines and humans.

Taking the time to research proper nutrition for your dog will also help you to gain valuable information regarding your own nutrition. There are many healthy snacks that you and your pet could benefit from. Here’s a brief list of foods you both could enjoy:

Bananas
Popcorn, no salt or butter
Apple slices, no seeds or core
Cantaloupe
Green Beans
Zucchini
Carrots

Please consult your veterinarian before adding to or changing your pet’s diet.

Sleep

In a world where we are constantly connected and bombarded with information 24/7, it’s understandable that getting a good night sleep is a luxury when it should be a necessity. Lack of sleep prevents the body from re-energizing its cells and affects mood, ability to learn and make memories as well as changing hormone release.

Snuggling up with your dog provides a better night sleep due to the increase and decrease of certain chemicals in the brain. Having your dog in bed boosts serotonin, a chemical that aids in getting a good night’s sleep. Oxytocin, another chemical responsible for helping with mental health, also increases when cuddling with your four-legged partner. Cortisol, the stress hormone, is released by the body which can affect a good night’s sleep.

Having your dog in bed with you causes a drop-in cortisol and allows for a better night’s sleep. It should also be noted that 56% of pet owners said sleeping with a dog comforted them and helped them to feel more relaxed.

Stress

Stress is a normal part of everyday life. Too much stress can wreak havoc on your mental health. Worrying about finances, your job, family & friends as well your relationship will all cause high levels of stress.

Mentally manifesting symptoms of stress are not the only things your body does to show you it’s time to relax. Muscle tension, headaches, digestive issues and skin problems are all physical signs your body gives to make you know that your body needs a break from the stressors of life.

Your dog can be an excellent tool for helping you manage and reduce stress. Dogs make great listeners and readily are available to be there for you to talk to. Their only accepted form of payment is a scratch on the head or a belly rub.

They also provide an excellent meditation partner. Just 10-20 minutes of quiet time with your dog will allow you to reflect on the positive parts of life. While meditating, play classical music. Dogs are known to also be soothed by classical music, just like us, resulting in both you and your dog experiencing calming benefits.

A dog does an excellent job of teaching us to be present at the moment and helping to relieve mental and physical stress. They do not worry about the past and certainly do not stress about the future. If they want to run around and act silly or chase a squirrel in the yard, they do it. Dogs have no shame in taking a well-deserved nap during the dog.

And while they may not make the best food choices at times, (the trash? Really Fido?), they certainly can teach you to love food no matter what is paced in from of you. Learning from dogs will help us to be more appreciative of the things we have and teach us to value the time given to us.

So, if you’re looking to live a more Zen lifestyle, consider allowing a dog into your family, if you haven’t already, and immediately feel the benefits of your new four-legged friend.

Brittney Adams is the Pet Healthcare Expert at MedicareFAQ, a learning resource center for seniors. Brittney loves working in the senior & pet healthcare industry. Aside from writing about pets, she has a great passion for rescuing them. In her spare time, she enjoys snuggling on the couch with her adopted furbabies as well as traveling the world by cruise ship.

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