The nest might be empty but the dog-bed is full. Adding a puppy to the family can bring mid-life magic to the household. Big walks and boundless fresh air are obvious reasons but increasingly studies are showing that having a dog does wonders for mental as well as physical health.
“Dogs can be wonderful for our physical health as well as our mental health”, says an RSPCA spokesman. “Having a pet dog encourages healthy living and exercise, gets people out and about, and also encourages regular routine and structure in day-to-day life.
“Evidence suggests that stroking animals – or, in the case of dogs, just looking into their eyes – prompts our bodies to release oxytocin, known as the ‘love hormone’, that brings about bonding, boosts our optimism and confidence, and lowers blood pressure.
Pets keep you active
It’s no surprise that owning a pet – particularly a dog – makes you more active, but the list of health benefits that come with that might surprise. Older adults who own a dog have a lower body mass index, make fewer visits to the doctor and do more exercise. Research also shows that the stronger your bond with your pooch, the more likely you are to walk, and spend longer walking.
Boost your cardiovascular health
With all those walkies, pets tend to be good for your ticker too. The American Heart Association undertook a big piece of research looking at how owning pets affects your chance of developing cardiovascular disease (CVD) – these are conditions that affect your heart and blood, such as stroke or coronary heart disease.
Researchers found that having a pet – a dog, in particular – is probably associated with reducing your chances of developing CVD, though they were careful not to overstate this.
Pets make you more sociable
Even though you might feel grumpy sometimes and think you like quiet, humans are social animals. It’s important for our physical and mental health to have contact with other people – and our four-legged friends are a brilliant way to get you talking.
Pets don’t just increase the number of off-chance chats you have, they also help people trust you and are brilliant ice-breakers.
Social isolation is a huge health problem, particularly as we get older. So, what may seem like a trivial chat when walking your dog, can be hugely significant for your mental and physical health.
Pets stop loneliness in its tracks
It’s not just that pets help you build a wider social network – many people have pets as companions. They make you happy, give you a routine and are great company – all of which adds to your quality of life and boosts your everyday mental health.
Pets mirror some of the benefits that human relationships have on your health, which can be particularly helpful for people who find themselves alone. What’s more, relationships with your pets are less likely to have the ups and downs that you get with humans, making them much more consistent.
Having a friendly face at home isn’t just a nice-to-have – it can help you stave off common mental health problems caused, at least in some part, by loneliness. A 2009 study found that pet-owners over the age of 60 who lived alone were four times less likely to develop clinical depression compared with people who didn’t have pets.
Help you manage long-term mental health issues
As well as protecting your mental wellbeing, pets can also help you manage long-term mental health problems. Pets are a valuable source of support for those managing long-term conditions, providing a welcome distraction from symptoms or upsetting experiences and lots of encouragement.
Reduce your stress
If you want to try and control your stress levels, go and chat to your pet. Research from Buffalo University in New York found that pet owners reacted less to stress – and recovered from it much quicker – when their pets were present. And that’s not all – another study took 48 people with high blood pressure and high stress jobs. Researchers measured how they responded to stress before the test. Then, some of them bought a pet and six months later researchers again measured their response to stress. The results were interesting: after six months pet owners had less of a physical response to stress compared with those who didn’t have a four-legged friend.
Additional information about AXA PPP healthcare can be found on their website: axappphealthcare.co.uk
There are thousands of rescue dogs waiting for new homes in RSPCA centres across the country. If you’d like to add a dog to your family, visit: rspca.org.uk/findapet
Beaches, becks and grassy banks. Elysia Agnew picks out six of the best pooch-perfect walks.
Take a leisurely walk around Cleveland beauty spot Carlton Bank, enjoying the rolling views from snow topped hills and blowing away the cobwebs on a perfect Sunday. Your pooch will love the vast expanses of space, and you’ll love stopping off at the Lordstones Café.
Captain Cook’s Monument and Roseberry Topping
Make the most of the crisp mornings and enjoy a brisk walk from Captain Cook’s Monument across the tops to Roseberry Topping and take in spectacular views of the North East. Your four-legged friend will make the perfect companion for you as you soak up the peaceful isolation of the North Yorkshire countryside.
Cod Beck Reservoir, Northallerton
A tranquil walk around Cod Beck Reservoir in Swainby makes for an ideal winter afternoon stroll. As the evening draws in, head to the Golden Lion in Osmotherly for a hearty pub meal in a country-chic, dog-friendly setting.
Ever-popular with dog walkers, Seaham seafront offers a refreshing coastal stroll for when you’re craving the sea air. Prepare to make some new dog friends as your pooch runs wild in the North Sea. Fill your flask with a hot drink and get the fire roaring back home so your pet can dry off in style.
A stroll through Jesmond Dene is an enchanting walk all year round, but you can’t beat dawn at this time of year, with the rising sun glistening through frosty foliage as Newcastle wakes up. Breathe in the invigorating morning air as your dog delights in the abundance of branches and twigs to get their teeth stuck into.
Go here for a stunning seafront stroll or a browse through the beautifully quaint village. Stretch your legs on the sands then refuel with tasty tea and scones at The Copper Kettle Tea Rooms. If you fancy taking yourself on a little culture trail, roam the grounds of Bamburgh Castle.