Throughout my life, I have always been around dogs. From my first day home as an infant to today, dogs have always been there. Of course, we had a collection of other animals, including cats, turtles, guinea pigs, fish, iguanas, gerbils, hamsters, and even ferrets. I will focus on dogs for this topic; however, there are benefits of having animals in general. There are studies showing that by having a routine even as simple as caring for a pet, people are likely to live longer.

There are several physical benefits of dog ownership. Studies show that pet owners can have lower blood pressure and lower cholesterol and triglyceride levels that may reduce the risk for heart disease. For those who have already had a heart attack, pet owners tend to have a better rate of recovery. This is thought to be related to overall stress reduction from their pets. Dog owners in general are less likely to be obese as well. Recent evidence reveals dogs may actually improve your children’s immune system due to the exposure to dirt and allergens at a young age. There are also many anecdotal reports in which dogs have alerted their owners to the presence of malignancies and prompted medical evaluation. In addition, dogs’ highly developed sense of smell allows them to detect changes in human emotional states and instinctively know when to provide comfort.

While these are just some of the physical benefits, it is the unconditional love and positive emotional benefit that I believe are the major rewards of dog ownership. There have been several patients for whom I have “prescribed” the suggestion of getting a dog. Often, for people who are lonely or battle anxiety or depression, animal ownership may increase one’s sense of purpose. If you are battling depression, you might not want to get out of bed all day. However, as dog owners know, your pet won’t let you just stay in bed. They may bark at you, or get up on your bed to cuddle, but one way or another, you are getting up.

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One does not need to be the owner of the dog to gain positive benefit from the animal. Pet therapy has been shown to be quite beneficial. Nursing homes will often have pet therapy dogs come in and brighten up the day for the residents. There are also numerous programs in prisons where inmates are responsible for caring for a dog and its training. This is a win-win situation. The inmate learns some vocational skills and increases his or her self-esteem. These pets avoid shelters, and are often trained as service dogs and eventually adopted.

This week, I was in a precarious situation in which I was fortunate to have the benefit of man’s best companion to assist me. While visiting family in the high-mountain country of Colorado, I developed altitude sickness. Initially, the symptoms were headache and increased dyspnea on exertion, but they unfortunately progressed to HAPE, or high-altitude pulmonary edema. This was quite frightening, as I was developing dyspnea, tachypnea, and mild tachycardia, and had developed a persistent pink productive cough. We knew the treatment was increased oxygen and descent from this altitude. However, my initial treatment came from sitting upright, resting, and reducing anxiety due to my sister’s dog Venus, a very calming older Great Dane who loves to lie on the couch with you and just put her head on your lap. As I rested on the couch, she clearly helped me to calm down, which lowered my heart rate and physiologically likely resulted in lowering my pulmonary artery pressure. This was just what I needed to keep me calm physically and emotionally. That was just about 14 hours ago and now I am in Denver 5000 feet lower in elevation and improving nicely.

My family and I are excited to go home tomorrow (to the elevation of 285 feet), where we will be warmly welcomed home by our 3 wonderful dogs, Buzz, Bella, and Henry, who will continue to contribute to our physical and emotional well-being as long as they remain at our side.