How much do we love our dogs? Well, last year we spent around $55 billion on pets, according to the New York Times. Roughly half of that went to the care and feeding of dogs, reports the American Pet Products Association.
What do we get for our investment, besides unconditional love? Here are some proven health benefits of living with pets:
LOWER HEALTH CARE COSTS People with pets actually make fewer doctor visits, especially for nonserious medical conditions, a National Institutes of Health report found.
LESS DEPRESSION Pets help people who might feel there's no point to anything take more of an interest in life. For instance, studies show that when seniors face adversity or trauma, affection from pets can foster a sense of security, write the authors of Between Pets and People: The Importance of Animal Companionship.
STRESS BE GONE Walking with a pet soothes nerves and offers instant relaxation. Studies conducted worldwide have shown that the impact of a stressful situation is less on pet owners, especially males, than on those who do not own a pet, according to the Waltham Centre for Pet Nutrition in the U.K.
LONELY NO MORE A survey by the American Veterinary Association found that nearly 50 percent of respondents considered their pets to be companions, while only 2 percent thought of them as property.
HEALTHIER HEARTS Because pets provide people with faithful companionship, research shows they may also provide their owners with greater psychological stability, thus a measure of protection from heart disease, according to the National Institutes of Health.
As a lifetime dog owner, I can tell you that dogs can be first-rate healers. I have dozens of stories to back that up. Here's just one:
When I was principal of an elementary school, my golden retriever Honey and I would stand in front of school every day to greet students. I often had to remind students to shake my hand after they shook Honey's paw. She was a charmer. On the first day of school one year, a trembling first-grader refused to get out of the car. His dad pleaded, coaxed, bribed. Nothing worked; the boy seemed stuck to the back seat.
Tail wagging, Honey went over to the open rear door, jumped in the car and put her head in the boy's lap. That did it. Tears turned to laughter, the boy trotted into school with a smile and had a faithful friend waiting for him every school day for the next six years. She made him forget himself and find his joy.
In more serious situations, trained therapy dogs can reach people in physical or psychological crisis who have retreated to a mental zone where people can't seem to get in. Dogs have a way of entering that space and coaxing people out. Dogs can even be trained to accompany and assist people who suffer from seizures. The dog can sense an oncoming seizure before the person can and be there to respond and summon aid.
As the debate about how to improve patient care and make it affordable continues, dogs offer a potent healing element we all seek: love. Dogs love us without preconditions, without judgment. They coax joy and unselfishness out of us when we're in a dark place. They forgive. They get us up and out. They watch over us.
All they need in return is food, shelter, care and devotion. Now that's an affordable plan.
Bob Clark is a Christian Science practitioner from Belleair. Read his blog at flcompub.org/blog, and check out his skateboarding dogs, Twig and Chili, at twigskates.com.