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Animals—especially dogs—can provide powerful motivation to stay on top of your health.

Alison Ashton
October 31, 2018

In 2010, Eric O’Grey had hit rock bottom. He was 150 pounds overweight and taking more than a dozen medications to manage hypertension, high cholesterol, diabetes, and depression. He was reclusive and sedentary. “I didn’t have motivation to do anything,” he recalls.

Then a new doctor suggested he adopt a dog. “She said, ‘That dog will force you to get outside, you’ll start meeting people, and you’ll have a relationship with the dog,’” says O’Grey. He visited his local humane society, where he found an overweight Border collie–Australian shepherd mutt he named Peety. They began working toward a goal of walking 30 minutes twice a day.

“It was the most unbelievable bond I’d ever experienced,” says O’Grey. And that provided motivation to exercise and follow his doctor’s other mandate to adopt a plant-based diet. “I resolved that I had to get better; if anything happened to me, what would happen to him?”

It worked. O’Grey was off his medications in six months. “In 10 months, I’d lost 140 pounds, and Peety had lost 25,” says O’Grey, who shares his story in Walking with Peety: The Dog Who Saved My Life. They even started running to maintain their weight loss.

Peety died in 2015, and in the six months before O’Grey was ready to get another dog, he put on 20 pounds. But when he adopted Jake, a young, energetic Lab mix, O’Grey got right back on track. “He’s been my running partner ever since,” he boasts.

What the Research Suggests

A number of studies have linked pet ownership with better health. Research published last year from a large-scale Swedish population study found dog owners have a lower risk of heart disease and death from all causes. A study in China suggests similar benefits.

But researchers also note that pinpointing how animals help boost their humans’ health is tricky. A survey of more than 5,100 California households initially suggested a link between pets and everything from more physical activity to better mood in kids. But when statisticians with the nonprofit research organization RAND Corporation revisited the data and accounted for more than 100 other variables, from family income to parental status, the “pet edge” shrank considerably. RAND researchers also revisited data from a survey of more than 42,000 adults in California that implied a link between pets and better health and similarly found other factors (like income and employment) likely made the difference.

“Our findings don’t suggest pets have no benefits,” says Layla Parast, PhD, a statistician at RAND. “But they do suggest owning a pet doesn’t have the large benefit other studies have suggested.” The companionship of living with pets certainly is enjoyable, she adds, even if it’s hard to quantify statistically.

Research aside, O’Grey has Peety to thank for turning his health around and Jake for keeping him in shape. “I think everybody should have a dog,” he says.

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