Kathleen M. Pike, PhD

Canine Companions and Mental Health

Canis lupus familiaris. Man’s best friend. We all know that is Fido (or for me, Nike). No other interspecies relationship compares to the one that exists between humans and dogs.

Our family dog, Nike, on a walk with me in NYC

And this week at the Gerontological Society Association (GSA) Meeting in Austin, I discovered that dogs are teaching us about healthy aging, too. Seriously, what can’t they do!?!

1. Dog years teaching us about healthspan in humans. University of Washington Professor Dr. Matt Kaeberlein is Director of the Dog Aging Project, an initiative that is launching a fascinating series of studies examining the science of how dogs age and the implications for human aging. The Dog Aging Project includes a longitudinal study that examines genetic, environmental, and behavioral variation among dogs with the aim of uncovering what factors help account for longer, healthier lives for our canine friends. Dr. Kaeberlein is also conducting an intervention trial examining the efficacy of the drug Rapamycin in slowing aging in dogs. Rapamycin increases lifespan in yeast, worms, flies, and mice. What about dogs? And if it works for dogs, then what does that mean for humans? If you would like to nominate your dog to participate in either of these studies, visit the Dog Aging Project website today.

2. Dogs and reduced loneliness. Pets provide psychological health benefits, such as reducing negative moods and loneliness levels. This may be especially true among individuals who live aloneOlder adult pet owners also report less mental distress and fewer doctor visits than those without pets even when they do not live alone. In a study of primary care patients 60 years or older, pet owners were 36% less likely than non-pet owners to report loneliness. How does this work? Dogs promote routines in an individual’s life. We think we are doing something for them as we don our coats and put on their leashes, but our dog walks are actually also promoting our mental health: they take us into green space, provide increased opportunities for social interactions, and increase physical exercise, all of which demonstrated positive effects on our mental health.

3. Puppy love and our brains. We have all been there. Total crush. Head over heels for someone else. This typically fleeting experience in young love stories is named for its resemblance to the adoring affection of puppies. The benefits of such positive emotional thrill can be mapped in our brains with changes in oxytocin. I have written about oxytocin before. Oxytocin is associated bonding, socialization, and stress relief. It is integral to slowing heart rate and breathing, inhibiting stress hormones, and creating a sense of calm, comfort and focus. Studies are increasingly showing that oxytocin and cortisol levels of dogs and their owners interact in complex ways that help explain the biological basis of that emotional crush we call puppy love.

4. Dogs and preventing seizures. Patient reports have suggested the benefits of dogs to respond to and provide alerts for seizures. Dogs have been trained to notify humans during a seizure or lie near someone having a seizure to prevent injury. However, research is still too preliminary to show whether dogs can predict seizures or respond to seizures effectively. A small new study this year suggested that dogs may be able to recognize a scent that may occur with a seizure, but more evidence is needed. While we gather more data to better understand the capacity of dogs to provide such health services, we do know that their companionship provides support and emotional benefit to people who have epilepsy or another chronic illness in ways that can be associated with reducing stress-related symptoms.

5. Dogs and trauma recovery. Dogs may have the potential to help lessen reactivity among people who have experienced acute stress. One study showed that after watching a traumatic film clip, a group of participants who interacted with a friendly dog for 15 minutes reported lower anxiety and improved mood as compared to comparison groups who either watched another film clip of a person interacting with a friendly dog or were simply instructed to relax. This study supports the many personal stories from veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder. When given service dogs, vets report improvements in sleeping, post-traumatic stress symptoms, and depression after only three months. The number of books written by vets about the importance of their dogs in their mental health recovery almost qualifies it as a specific genre of books. One that I particularly found endearing is Craig & Fred, given to me by my dad, also a veteran.

Nike found her way to me from my son and daughter-in-law. She is all rescue. Yes, she is happy to be well cared for today. What our family has come to understand in spades over the years is that we are also lucky beneficiaries of this unique bond. In addition to puppy love and man’s best friend, maybe we need to add family therapist as another moniker for our dogs given all the mental health benefits they bestow on us.

Picture of Kathleen M. Pike, PhD

Kathleen M. Pike, PhD

Kathleen M. Pike, PhD is Professor of Psychology and Director of the Global Mental Health WHO Collaborating Centre at Columbia University.

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