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Sheryl Kraft

Sheryl Kraft, a freelance writer and breast cancer survivor, was born in Long Beach, New York. She currently lives in Connecticut with her husband Alan and dog Chloe, where her nest is empty of her two sons Jonathan. Sheryl writes articles and essays on breast cancer and contributes to a variety of publications and websites where she writes on general health and wellness issues. She earned her MFA in writing from Sarah Lawrence College in 2005.

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woman and her dog at the beach

5 Ways Your Dog Can Keep You Healthy

Being that this past weekend was Father's Day, it got me thinking about my late father, whom I'm quite sure I will never stop missing.

My father liked to say there were two kinds of people in the world: dog lovers and non-dog lovers. You can guess the ones he preferred to hang out with.

Though his view might have been a little black and white, the man never met a dog he didn't like. And so, you can probably guess what else that meant: our house was never without a dog (or two). Are you a stray and need a place to crash? Come in! We'll clean you up and feed you … and most likely keep you if no one comes looking. That's part of what made our house a home.

But I've also come to learn that owning a dog goes way beyond making a house more of a home. Sure, they're cute and cuddly and are wonderful companions; they can even stand in for a friend (or sometimes are preferable to a real live one!).

The latest study on that very special dog/person relationship, published in Science, finds that the same chemical that is released shortly after childbirth, oxytocin (also known by such names as "the bliss hormone" and "the cuddle hormone"), is released when the eyes of a dog and human lock.

Oxytocin facilitates both childbirth and breastfeeding. It's undeniably powerful stuff, also known to contribute to relaxation, trust and psychological stability. There's a lot going on when you gaze into those irresistible puppy dog eyes.

And what's even more interesting is that the hormone is not only secreted by humans, but by the dogs as well. I guess that fact shouldn't be all that surprising, considering the fact that University of Chicago researchers found that several groups of genes in humans and dogs have been evolving in parallel for thousands of years, due most likely to their shared environment, they say. Those genes include those related to neurological processes, disease, diet and digestion.

Then there are the undeniable health benefits of owning a dog (and this goes for pets in general, but for the purposes of this story, I'll keep it to dogs). Can you be healthy without owning a dog? Certainly. But as a nod to my late dog-loving father, I'll bet all the people he chose to hang around with were pretty healthy.

  1. Dog owners are less likely to get heart disease. The main reason: Dog owners generally walk more than non-dog owners. Even if you already have heart problems (if you've suffered a heart attack or have a serious abnormal heart rhythm), owning a dog has been shown to help you live longer than not owning a pet, according to studies. And one study found that owning a dog decreased fourfold the mortality rate connect with having another cardiovascular problem.
  2. Dog owners have lower blood pressure than non-dog owners. Research shows that talking to and petting a dog can have a positive impact on your blood pressure—more so than human conversation.
  3. Simply petting a dog can lower levels of stress hormones. Just 15 minutes spent stroking your dog releases the feel-good hormones serotonin, prolactin and oxytocin. It also lowers the stress hormone cortisol, says a University of Missouri-Columbia study. All this adds up to the fact that petting a dog is a great depression-buster.
  4. Dogs can reduce your likelihood of obesity. That's due to the increased physical activity of many dog owners. One study found that dog owners walked an average of 300 minutes per week as opposed to non-dog owners (who walked an average of 168 minutes per week). Another study in the American Journal of Public Health found that children with dogs spent more time engaging in physical activity than children without dogs.
  5. Dogs can detect cancer. Pretty amazing, but it's been documented more than once. One case study in The Lancet reported on a person whose dog relentlessly sniffed at a mole on her leg and even attempted to bite it off. When she had her mole checked, it was discovered to be a malignant melanoma.

Ever since my dog Chloe died a little over three years ago, my life has felt rather … empty. Let me elaborate on that. I miss her terribly every day (with a similar ache I feel from missing my dad), and I constantly question my status as a non-dog owner, having had one all my life—until now.

Yet, the rather newfound freedom of being an empty nester makes it difficult to make the commitment to owning and raising another dog. Part of it's onerous, yet part of it is what I know.

I'm torn, I really am.

Maybe you're a dog owner who would never, ever be without a furry friend. Or perhaps you, like me and so many others, once owned a dog but are now hesitant to start all over with a new one.

I'd love to hear your thoughts!

More Reading:
Five Healthy Lessons We Can Learn from Our Dogs
Health Messages That Work
5 Ways to Stop Dwelling on Negative Thoughts

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