You will have heard stories about the amazing healing properties of dog saliva – but is it true or just an urban myth? And do dogs have any other remarkable healing abilities? In short, can dogs heal humans?
There is a wealth of scientific information available in this area so we need speculate no longer.
Let’s take a closer look …
1. Can Dogs Heal Humans?
OK, there are 2 aspects to human health:
So, let’s examine both and see what dogs can do to help humans.
1.1 Can Dogs Heal Humans? Physical Aspects
1.1.1 Dog Saliva and Human Wounds
This is a topic that gets lots of attention so let’s take a look at this one first.
Dogs have been companions to humans for thousands of years. Both the ancient Egyptians and the ancient Greeks believed that having a wound licked by a dog would aid in recovery and even cure disease.
Were they right? Is there any evidence?
Studies, such as “Antibacterial properties of saliva” by BL Hart and KL Powell, indicate that canine saliva does have bactericidal effects against some pathogens, including E. coli.
And an article by N Benjamin et al entitled “Wound licking and nitric oxide” in The Lancet explained that when saliva is applied to wounds a substance within it, called nitrite, breaks down into a chemical compound (nitric oxide) which has an antimicrobial effect.
While researchers at the University of Florida at Gainesville discovered a protein called Nerve Growth Factor (NGF) in the saliva of mice. Wounds that had NGF applied healed twice as quickly as untreated and unlocked wounds.
Great. So, that’s all cleared up then?
Well, not quite.
Unfortunately, as well as the positives outlined above there are also negative factors to consider.
The mouths of many mammals, including dogs, contain bacteria such as Pasteurella which can cause very nasty infections in deep wounds.
A dog’s saliva does, studies have shown, contain healing properties for wounds. However, the risk of bacterial infection from the saliva outweighs the advantages of these properties.
1.1.2 Better Immune System
In a 2004 study “Effect of petting a dog on immune system function“, CJ Charnetski et al found that petting a dog produced a significant improvement in the immune system of the test subjects compared to the control subjects.
1.1.3 Lower Blood Pressure
In 2012 A Beetz et al produced the “Psychosocial and Psychophysiological Effects of Human-Animal Interactions: The Possible Role of Oxytocin” study.
The study found that interaction with dogs led to an increase in oxytocin levels, which in turn decreased blood pressure, and heart rate, for several hours.
1.2 Can Dogs Heal Humans? Mental Aspects
1.2.1 General Well-being
Perhaps even more impressive than the physical healing properties of dogs are their abilities to help with our mental well-being.
In the aptly titled “Friends With Benefits: On the Positive Consequences of Pet Ownership” AR McConnell, CM Brown, et al investigate the positive psychological implications of owning a dog.
They undertook 3 separate studies:
- Fulfilment of social needs
- Social isolation and rejection
It was found that:
- Owners had greater self-esteem, were more physically fit, tended to be less lonely, were more conscientious, were more extraverted, tended to be less fearful, and tended to be less preoccupied than non-owners.
- To the extent that their dogs fulfilled needs related to belongingness, self-esteem, meaningful existence, and control, owners enjoyed a range of better outcomes (i.e., less depression, less loneliness, greater self-esteem, greater happiness, and less perceived stress).
- One’s pet was every bit as effective as one’s best friend in staving off social needs deficits in the wake of rejection.
1.2.2 Show Empathy
Dogs have even been shown (Empathic-like responding by domestic dogs to distress in humans) to have a form of empathy when humans appear to be upset.
1.2.3 Decrease levels of Depression
In “A long-term study of elderly people in nursing homes with visiting and resident dogs” (P Crowley-Robinson et al) there was found to be a reduction in depression both for those residents with a resident dog and for those that had visiting dogs.
Other studies have produced similar findings.
It has also been found that for those with mental and physical health problems (both adults and children) contact with animals can improve mood.
1.2.4 Stress Reduction
And that this impact helps to reduce stress levels.
One study noted that the presence of a service dog reduced stress levels in autistic children (and that stress levels increased again if the dog was removed).
Another found that hospital patients receiving visits from a dog had significantly lower stress levels both during and after the dog visits.
A study by A Beetz et al even showed that children receiving social support from a dog had far greater stress level reductions than children receiving social support from a friendly human.
OK, so this is a ‘biggie’:
Owning a dog decreases the risk of mortality.
And the decrease isn’t trivial either – in “Dog Ownership and Survival” CK Kramer et al found that there was a 24% risk reduction for all-cause mortality for dog owners.
Not only that but when looking at cardiovascular mortality the risk reduction was 31%!
Owning a dog can increase your life expectancy!
3. Prevention and Identification
OK, we’ve seen what dogs can do to help with existing physical and mental issues but are there any other health benefits of owning a dog?
Short answer: Lots!
Long answer: Keep reading …
3.1 Increasing Exercise
Have you ever planned an exercise regime and then, at some point, failed to stick to it?
Probably – most of us have.
However, what if you had your own little four-legged exercise buddy? It seems that we are far better at committing to help our dogs get their daily exercise than we are committing to help ourselves!
Once you get a dog you are far more likely to fit in that daily walk (or run!). Or even walks and runs.
Do remember though that when you take your dog for a walk, any exercise you get should be seen as an added bonus – the primary purpose of the walk is for your dog’s enjoyment.
It has been shown that isolation and loneliness can lead to depression. Whereas companionship helps to reduce the likelihood of illness and even extends life expectancy.
I can assure you from first-hand experience – it is impossible to come home and be greeted by a happy dog, with its furiously wagging tail and a well-chosen gift in its mouth for you, and not smile.
A dog is the only thing on earth that loves you more than you love yourself.Josh Billings
3.3 Disease Detection
A dog’s sense of smell is many, many times better than a human’s.
In fact, it is so good that they can actually detect the presence of disease in a human by scent alone.
We all know that early detection of disease can often make a huge difference to the prognosis of a patient. So, if dogs can help us with disease detection then that is a fantastic attribute.
Remember Covid-19? Dogs can be trained to detect that.
It seems, reading “Canine olfactory detection and its relevance to medical detection” by P Jendrny et al that there are a great many diseases that dogs can detect.
These include (but are not limited to):
- Hypoglycaemia in diabetes patients
- Epileptic seizures
- Clostridium difficile
- E. coli
The use of dogs for such detection work is still in its infancy but holds great promise.
3.4 Protection from Asthma
A 2013 study by S Lynch and N Lukacs found that “Children’s risk for developing allergies and asthma is reduced when they are exposed in early infancy to a dog in the household …”.
Can dogs heal humans?
Studies have shown that dogs are beneficial for both our physical and mental well-being. They can improve our immune system, lower blood pressure, relieve depression, and reduce stress. Oh, and they can decrease the risk of mortality by 24%!
Are dog owners healthier?
Yes. There have been many studies which show that dog owners are healthier than non-owners. This is partly because dog ownership encourages owners to take more exercise but there is also a general health benefit, evidenced by studies, just to actually sharing your home with a dog.
Do dogs help with anxiety?
Dogs are excellent at reducing anxiety in humans. Dogs live “in the moment” – they don’t worry about the past or fret about the future. And this outlook appears to transfer to owners, who become more mindful and appreciate what they have in the present.
Dogs are also excellent listeners and completely non-judgemental – you can tell your dog about your failed exam, your demanding boss, the client from hell, and the death of a close friend. Tell your dog all of your woes while you pet him – and he’ll listen, as he always does, he won’t interrupt, he won’t question. He can’t pass your exam for you, reduce the demands of your boss, please the grumpy client, or resurrect your friend – but he’ll listen, and you’ll feel at least a little bit better.
Do dogs make you happier?
Dogs are always happy to greet you with a wag of their tail and a goofy grin on their face and you can’t help but smile when you see them.
The pure joy that they experience from the simplest of things – destroying a cardboard box, dancing around in front of the garden hose while you try to water the plants, rolling onto their backs and wriggling back and forth ‘carpet surfing’.
And it’s not just anecdotal evidence either. Studies have shown that interaction with dogs causes the human brain to produce oxytocin. This hormone increases our warm, happy feelings, and lessens our feelings of stress and anxiety.
Do dogs help with loneliness?
Definitely – and many studies have scientifically proven it.
Dogs make excellent companions in their own right. However, they also have the added bonus of encouraging their owners to be more sociable – walking your dog very often results in conversations with people that you may otherwise have not spoken with. And they make an excellent topic of conversation, too.
OK, so the whole ‘dog saliva is a miracle cure’ angle was a bust, with potential bacterial infection outweighing any healing properties.
However, the ability of dogs to improve both our physical and mental health in other ways is absolutely incredible.
If I didn’t already have a dog (that’s him in the feature image at the top of the page) I’d be giving it some serious consideration. Especially when entering retirement.
If you are approaching retirement, or are already retired, and don’t currently have a dog why not give it some thought? You could even improve the feel-good factor by getting a rescue dog from a shelter.