A 2-year-old Shih Tzu terrier mix named Dodger was eager to get started on a walk with his owner on Thursday. The small beige and white dog waited patiently for Jeanette Knight’s cues just outside the Rose Rudman Trail where other walkers gathered for Walk With a Doc, a weekly exercise initiative led by local physicians.
Ms. Knight had been going to Walk With a Doc since her co-workers found out about the event earlier this year.
This recent walk was different. The discussion topic before the walk focused on health benefits of owning pets. Dr. Elliott Whitley, who led the event, encouraged walkers to bring their dogs with them.
Ms. Knight knew firsthand that having Dodger can be a stress reliever, which in turn may have an effect on mood and vitals.
“When you come home to something this cute, what do you do? You can’t help but have a release,” she said, noting that she de-stresses while cuddling with Dodger.
In a 2012 study published in Frontiers in Psychology, researchers reviewed 69 original studies on human-animal interactions. It found that “evidence clearly” shows the potential for a pet to increase oxytocin, a hormone released into the circulatory system and the brain. This hormone drives empathy, face memory, social skills, positive self-perception and generosity. It also reduces stress, depression and blood pressure for several hours, according to the study.
The American Heart Association also has found that pet ownership, particularly a dog, can help lower the risk of heart disease.
It’s not that dogs can magically cure what ails humans. Pet owners tend to get more exercise than non-dog owners.
A 2011 Michigan State University study published in the Journal of Physical Activity and Health found that dog walkers are 34 percent more likely to get the recommended 150 minutes of exercise each week compared to non-dog owners.
Margaret Herring walks Charlie, her 5-year-old King Charles Cavalier.
“I’m getting exercise that I would not get, that’s for sure,” she said. “We play with him every day and he gets the exercise, too.”
Whitley, an emergency department physician, told walkers Thursday that simply walking can help prevent or reduce the effects of some of the chronic diseases he sees in patients on a daily basis.
“If you get out and do that, that’s going to drop your blood pressure and your blood sugar,” he said, accompanied by his and his wife Danielle’s 9-year-old dog Bianca. “It may make a difference in decreasing medications.”
A 2010 University of Missouri study suggested that dogs are better walking companions than humans. Whitley said people are likely to find excuses to get out of exercise. However, dogs won’t complain about the heat and they walk at a faster pace, researchers found.
But not all dog owners walk their dogs regularly, according to the Michigan State University study, which included 5,902 respondents. While 61 percent of dog owners walked for at least 10 minutes at a time, only 27 percent got the recommended 30 minutes of exercise five times a week.
“Unfortunately, about 50 percent of the pets I see are overweight,” said Danielle Whitley, a Tyler veterinarian. “But I see when some come in after they’ve lost weight together (with their owners).”
Dogs do more than help their owners get exercise and reduce stress. Studies are pointing to the benefit of being exposed to their dander.
Whitley explained, citing the “hygiene hypothesis” for autoimmune diseases such as asthma and allergies, that pets might also help keep these conditions at bay when they’re introduced in the home early in life. The hypothesis suggests that in our society’s standard of cleanliness, Americans have limited exposure to germs and animals. Not having that exposure doesn’t aid the immune system in adapting to germs and other stimuli in the environment.
“Data shows that a lot of these diseases we have don’t exist in third world countries,” Whitley said. “Actually, preliminary data shows having an animal in your house may lead to a decrease in autoimmune disease just by being exposed to cats, dogs.”
Americans need any help they can get to fit in a healthy lifestyle, whether it’s regular exercise, stress reduction or help fighting off allergens. At least one solution is simple.
“Go get you a dog or cat and go walk it,” Whitley said.