Why Dogs are Better than Cats: A heath perspective

Ask anyone who owns a pet, and they will tell you: pets are not just animals, but are part of the family. But did you know that your furry friend is also improving your health?

It’s the greatest battle in the animal kingdom – cats versus dogs (they even made movies about it). But dogs may come out on top in unexpected ways – Image Credit: Elea Chang, Flickr

From a young age, dogs benefit our health:

Pets are dirty and can transmit bacteria and other nasties, right? Well, as it turns out, your dog may actually boost your immune system.

Children who own a dog have fewer infections, and are prescribed antibiotics less often than children without any pet. Owning a cat doesn’t appear to reduce the number of childhood infections, but both dogs and cats may help protect against allergies:  Children are 67% less likely to develop allergies in later-life if they own a pet before their 6th birthday.

This may seem strange, as so many people say they are allergic to cats. The next time someone tells you they are allergic to cats, ask them if they had a cat (or any pet) as a young child. Chances are, they didn’t.

But how does this work?

Firstly, let’s consider how an allergic reaction occurs. If you are allergic to something, your body mistakenly believes this something is harmful. When this allergen invades, your body starts producing antibodies. These antibodies act like soldiers to remove the threat. The soldiers march quickly through your body, and release histamines (anti-histamines are hay fever’s worst enemy) to fight off the invading allergen. The location of these histamines determines what kind of reaction you will have: runny nose, itchy eyes, dry skin, etc.

Pet fur is a common allergen. Yet, children who own pets before their 6th birthday tend to have fewer allergies in adulthood. This may be because their immune system is exposed to pet fur from a young age, when the body doesn’t yet recognise pet fur as ‘harmful’. Therefore, antibodies don’t form, and histamines aren’t released, so the child doesn’t have an allergic reaction. When the child doesn’t become sick, the immune system ‘remembers’ this information, so the next time the child is exposed to pet fur, they also don’t have a reaction.

If you owned a dog as a child, your immune system may have a head start. But you can benefit from owning a pet at any age.

Dogs are good for our hearts – literally:

People who own a dog have lower cholesterol and are less likely to suffer from high blood pressure than people who do not own a pet. However, this may be due to increased exercise: Dog owners are less obese and more physically active than people who don’t own dogs. In contrast, cat owners are more likely to be overweight. Perhaps this is due to dog walking, but people may also be more likely to adopt a dog if they are fit and healthy. Whatever the reason, don’t assume that adopting a dog will instantly lower your cholesterol.

Interestingly, owning a pet has additional benefits to our hearts. If you’ve had a heart attack, owning any type of pet may decrease your recovery time. But owning a dog significantly improves your survival:  Dog owners are four times more likely to be alive one year after their heart attack compared to cat owners and non-pet owners.

Therapy dogs help patients recover faster – Image Credit: U.S. Air Force, Wikimedia Commons

Man’s best friend may also help us make human friends:

Walking a dog leads to more social interactions, especially with strangers. Pets also increase self-esteem and improve our sense of belonging. This means dogs can help us start new relationships, but also feel happy and fulfilled in our existing relationships.

Tired? Stressed? You’ll feel better with pets.

If you’ve ever had a stressful day, being greeted by a waggly tail when you get home can instantly change your mood. But this feeling goes beyond feeling like our pets love us. Owning a pet can help us adapt to stressful situations and recover from stress quickly.

Workers in stressful jobs who adopted a pet had significantly lower blood pressure than workers who did not adopt a pet. People also recovered from stress better if they were with their pets than if they were with a spouse, co-worker or friend. Interestingly, it does not matter what type of pet you have: owning any type of pet helps with your mental health and wellbeing.

Dogs improve our health and wellbeing, but don’t rush out to adopt a pet:

Although there are many benefits to owning a pet, they also require commitment, time, and money to look after them. So, don’t adopt a pet if your only reason is to improve your health.

5 Responses to “Why Dogs are Better than Cats: A heath perspective”

  1. Jennifer Feinstein says:

    Brilliant! The bit about the allergies was really interesting and I feel that you explained the science really well. This post makes me appreciate my dogs all that much more!

  2. Debbie says:

    I think that only works if they aren’t already allergic to cats, and if they somehow inhale the hair – do you have many young children sniffing you? If so, you are doing society a great (but kind of creepy) service!

  3. chatzis says:

    I like to think I help out children with their pet hair allergy, as I always seem to walk around with 2 cats worth of hair all over me!

  4. Debbie says:

    Hi Will,

    I (very briefly) alluded to this when talking about how people who are fit and healthy may be more likely to adopt a dog, but I didn’t really go into any detail. One problem with studies like these is that it is very difficult to know which came first (the health benefit or owning a pet).

    In regards to different personalities, it seems likely that there would be a difference. If we consider the history of cats and dogs and their interactions with people, there is quite a difference. Dogs are pack animals, so it would seem logical for people to adopt a dog to be more ‘pack-oriented’, or social (and as you put it, extraverted). In contrast, cats are more aloof, so perhaps people who adopt cats are more independent. There’s an interesting blog about this if you’d like to read more: https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/canine-corner/201002/personality-differences-between-dog-and-cat-owners

    I don’t think we can say dog people are better than cat people or vice versa, as owning both cats and dogs will have their benefits, but in different ways!

  5. Will McDonald says:

    Hi Debbie, thank you for confirming my beliefs that dogs are better than cats.
    A lot of what you’ve send is presented as causation (i.e. having a dog leads to these benefits), but is there any research into whether having some of these attributes makes you more likely to own a dog? Like more extraverted people choose dogs?
    Basically I want to know if dog people are better than cat people too!