The Health Impact of Very, Very Good Dogs

Published on February 10, 2021
Photo of dog
Photo credit: Pauline Loroy

Many have stepped up over the past year to provide support and compassion during the pandemic – but some have stepped up with four legs, not two.

Yes, we mean dogs. Very, very good dogs.

It’s time those dogs got recognition (and treats) for their service. In particular, we’re grateful for the dogs adopted from rescue shelters around the country when shelter-in-place recommendations took hold starting in March 2020. The prospect of long-term isolation motivated many people to seek out a companion animal. Anecdotally, shelters were besieged with requests for adoption, and pet profiles came down almost as quickly as they went up.

“Take a good look and you’re bound to see
That you and me were meant to be
For each other…”

The Beatles, “Martha My Dear”

At Carrot Health, we’ve long observed a fascinating correlation between health and canine companionship. In our 2017 look at “Matt and Jim” – two hypothetical men with identical demographics and medical histories, but different underlying social determinants of health (SDoH) – we noted that Matt is more likely to be an engaged, healthy, and less costly patient in the future due to several traits, including dog ownership. We speculated that this is because Matt might be less lonely and more likely to exercise because he takes his dog for daily walks.

With the strong interest in dog ownership during 2020, we decided to look at the population of dog owners versus non-dog owners, and to compare their Social Risk Grouper (SRG) scores. Carrot Health developed the SRG score as a way of measuring the SDoH health risk for every adult in the country. The data is curated across four broad categories – behavioral, economic, social and environmental.

Like a dog with a bone, here’s what we learned about how dog ownership impacts health risk.

First, the recent surge in dog ownership may have been more illusion than reality. While reported numbers lag, it appears that the percentage of people who own a dog has remained roughly the same between 2019 and 2020, at around 16.2%. Those dog owners, however, showed some interesting trends in terms of their SRG scores.

Source: Carrot Health Social Risk Grouper®

Overall, dog owners are 4% less risky when it comes to adverse social determinants of health.

Most notably, they are 7% less likely to be at risk of loneliness. We’ve noted before that loneliness can have strikingly negative effects on physical and mental health. People who adopted a dog to alleviate the social isolation of the pandemic were definitely onto something. Higher health literacy is also correlated with dog ownership – perhaps a sign that dog owners are aware of the benefits offered by canine companionship.

Financial insecurity, housing instability, and unemployment risk were less likely among dog owners. This might be explained by the fact that dogs are expensive and need adequate living space. Interestingly, discord at home and food insecurity were more likely among dog owners. We speculated that discord at home could be explained by the chaos of a new pet – accidents on the rug, chewed furniture and shoes – and food insecurity by the insatiable appetite. Dog owners were also more likely to have transportation needs – perhaps because many dog owners live in suburban or rural areas where public transportation is less available.

While the exact causal links between dog ownership and SDoH health risks are only speculative, the data clearly supports the statistical hypothesis that dogs contribute to a healthier and less lonely life for their owners. Of course, as dog lovers, we would say that. Research does back up, however, the idea that pet ownership reduces stress, loneliness, blood pressure and cholesterol, which we know have a powerful impact on health.

There has also been fascinating research recently into the strong genomic relationship between dogs and humans going back at least until the last ice age, 11,000 years ago. Some partnerships run deep.

Last month, dogs and dog owners burst with pride to see Major Biden, the nation’s first rescue dog in the White House, assume his post as first dog, hopefully with the code-name DOTUS. The rescue shelter Major Biden came from marked the momentous occasion by holding history’s first recorded “Indoguration.”

Major Biden’s not alone. Time Magazine named “rescue animals” as the 2020 pet of the year, noting the deep need such animals have helped fill in our lives. We think dogs and dog lovers should celebrate their long and healthy relationship by giving each other a paw.

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