Health Benefits and Risks of Dog Ownership

  • SPCA we are their voice
  • metro east humane society
  • cedars sinai
  • American Veterinary Medical Association
  • college of veterinary medicine  university of illinois urbana-champaign


You know the old adage, a dog is man’s best friend. Ever wonder where that idea came from? With 67% of American households with a pet, it seems they agree.

So, what are the health benefits of owning a dog? Can they actually help with your health? If so, then why not consider one of the millions of dogs who end up in shelters each year.

Let’s examine what owning a dog can do for your health, shelter adoption, and the most popular breeds you’re likely to encounter in a shelter.


Health Benefits

There’s no doubt of the dedication of most dog owners to their beloved four-legged friends. But how do they help with our health?

Of course, they offer love, friendship, and companionship. This provides some feel-good benefits. One study suggests that just staring into your dog’s eyes can raise the levels of oxytocin for both you and your dog. Oxytocin is the feel-good chemical made by the body and helps humans and dogs with social bonding.

  • Adult

    For adults, it seems there’s a long list of health benefits to owning a dog. In the simplest form, for many adults, it means increasing their activity level. Their dog often becomes a part of their fitness routine with regular walks and play.

    Motivation to exercise is crucial to maintaining an adequate level of physical activity. A long line of research claims that having a dog is an excellent motivator to exercise. For example, a 2019 study reports that dog owners were far more likely than non-dog owners to walk for recreation. They also have a greater likelihood of meeting physical activity guidelines than non-dog owners.

    Both male and female adults can benefit from responsible dog ownership. Researchers from the Czech Republic found that many young female owners engage in less physical activity because of the fear of failure or not being good enough.

    The same study reports that animal ownership (including dogs and horses) can help girls overcome this fear and motivate them to engage in more physical activities. The highest levels of moderate physical activity in minutes, metabolic equivalent-minute a week, and total physical activity time are reported among female owners with three or more dogs.

    There’s no doubt that owning a dog can reduce stress and anxiety levels for humans. If you’ve ever taken the time to pet a dog, you know it makes both you and them feel good. Stress can have a real negative impact on a person’s health including obesity, heart disease, diabetes, and depression.

    Social support or the lack thereof can modulate the effects of major life events on your psychological and physiological health. Empirical studies have shown a positive link between adequate social support and mental health outcomes. According to a 2011 study published in The Journal of Clinical Nursing, poor social support can increase the likelihood of loneliness and depression. It can also alter brain function, increasing the risk for alcohol use, depression, and suicide.

    A recent study on dog ownership explored how dogs may provide owners with social support; mitigate symptoms of stress, anxiety, and depression; and promote happiness during a global crisis. It found no differences in anxiety and happiness between dog owners and potential dog owners. However, dog owners reported significantly higher social support and lower depression than potential dog owners.

    Meanwhile, petting or playing with a dog can spike up serotonin, dopamine, and oxytocin levels, helping you calm and relax.

    Apart from better mental health, owning a dog can also boost your physical health. Increased physical activity and social support from dog companionship may lower cardiovascular risk. Moreover, a 2019 study reports that adults with dogs showed lower blood pressure, better lipid profile, and higher odds of survival over the long term, possibly due to lower cardiovascular mortality.

    Dogs also can help to reduce cholesterol and blood pressure numbers in their humans too.

    There seem to be some real benefits for Alzheimer’s and dementia patients in owning a dog too. Dogs can help reduce the symptoms of Alzheimer’s and also reduce agitation levels.


  • Elderly

    In the year 2010, the elderly made up 13% of the American population. That number is expected to continue to climb. Some estimates suggest that 20.9% of the population will be elderly by 2050.

    There are significant studies showing how dogs can have a positive impact on the health of the elderly. Pet therapy programs and animal-assisted therapy programs have shown positive results and been impactful for the elderly.

    Another study found that elderly pet owners were less likely to suffer from obesity, arthritis, or get a congestive heart failure diagnosis.


  • Children

    Plenty of children have spent years begging their parents for a dog. There seems to be plenty of good reasons, for the whole family, to consider saying yes.

    In addition to learning responsibility, dogs have the ability to teach kids a laundry list of social and emotional feelings. Compassion, trust, loyalty, and even patience are a part of the learning curve of owning a dog for children.

    Sure, they promise they’ll do all the chores associated with the dog. Most smart parents recognize at some point the newness of the dog will wear off and the chores will become, well, chores. Yet, the responsibility of owning a dog and being entrusted with their care and well-being teaches powerful lessons to kids.

    It seems there are physical benefits too. When children live in a home with a dog, it seems their immune systems kick in and those same kids have fewer ear infections and respiratory tract infections. This also means they need fewer antibiotics too.


How Dogs Help Cope With Physical and Mental Health

The physical benefits of owning a dog are shown over and over as adults are more active when they own a dog. They are out for regular walks and exercise, increasing their fitness levels. Other physical benefits include:

  • Reduced allergies
  • Fewer problems with asthma
  • Lower blood pressure
  • Lower triglycerides
  • Better cardiovascular health

The mental health benefits are pretty profound too. Pets, specifically dogs, are great company. It seems owning a dog is great for reducing loneliness and depression. Nursing homes and senior living facilities are recognizing the benefits and participating in animal-assisted therapy programs.

There are some risks associated with owning a dog, especially for seniors. Older dog owners need to be cautious about falls as a result of the dog.

People Adopting Companion Pets During Lockdown


People Adopting Companion Pets During Lockdown

One of the many problems faced by Americans during the Covid-19 pandemic, either because they were working from home or not working at all, was loneliness. And what does a dog do better than any other pet? They provide friendship, companionship, and company for their owners.

It seems Americans figured this out during their pandemic lockdown time. Animal shelters reported requests for dog adoption in record numbers. Even breeders reported reservations for puppies far into 2022. The benefits of a canine companion were profound during a time when Americans couldn’t have other human interactions.


How Many Dogs Have Been Adopted?

The statistics connected to dogs and shelters are pretty staggering. Approximately, 3.1 million dogs enter shelters each year. The good news is that the large number is actually a sharp decline from the 7.2 million that came to shelters in 2011.

The other good news is that approximately 2 million dogs get a new lease on life because of their adoption from a shelter. Another 810,000 dogs who come in as strays to shelters get returned to their owners.

34% of dogs are bought from breeders, while 23% of dogs get adopted from shelters or humane societies, and the remainder come from friends, family, or other sources. 

Which dogs are getting adopted from shelters across the US?

How Many Dogs Have Been Adopted
Most Popular Dog Breeds in Shelters


Reasons Dogs Are Returned to the Shelter

If you’re considering adopting a dog from a shelter, you want to be sure you’re prepared for the experience and you do your homework. Shelters work to help match the right dog with the best fit of an owner. Yet, some who enter a shelter make quick emotional decisions they later regret.

You don’t want to adopt a dog from a shelter only to return the dog to the shelter because it wasn’t working out. In fact, about 10% of dogs that are adopted from a shelter end up being returned to the shelter. What forces a dog owner to make the hard decision to return the dog back to the shelter and how can it be avoided?

For many pet owners, they enter into adoption with unrealistic expectations. Puppies and dogs, just like children, are a lot of work. They require regular attention and care. When you adopt a puppy, they come with puppy behaviors that need to be curbed as they learn and grow. While they might be fluffy and cute, they also require lots of attention and work to grow into a well-behaved dog.

Some dogs get returned to a shelter when their owners need to move. Either they’re moving to a place that won’t allow a dog or there are breed restrictions. Some who make long-distance moves don’t want to move the dog along with them. While sometimes a move can’t be avoided, when you adopt a pet, dog owners should realize they’re making a 10 to 15-year commitment to the animal.

Probably the most common reason a dog is returned comes from behavior. Some dogs have never lived anywhere besides a shelter. So, the adjustment of living in a shelter to living in a home can take time and patience. Dog owners adopting a shelter dog need to recognize the stress this can have on the dog and they need to be prepared to give them the time to acclimate to their new home before giving up and returning them to the shelter again.

Most Popular Dog Breeds in Shelters


Most Popular Dog Breeds in Shelters

Some people will come into a shelter hoping to find a specific breed of dog. While others enter the shelter looking for a dog that they feel a connection to and often is cute. Most people would find their adoption to be successful if they really paid attention to the personality of the dog.

Shelters do their best to identify a dog’s breed based on the physical appearance of a dog. Certain dog breeds do seem to be in shelters more than other dogs. This doesn’t make them a bad dog breed. Instead, it’s more likely that there are just more of that breed in existence.

Let’s take a look at the most common breeds found in shelters.

  • American Pit Bull Terrier

    Pit Bulls often get a bad rap because of the way some misuse and mistreat the dogs. They are, in fact, quite a popular breed of dog and can be great pets in the right home. Be sure to check your local ordinances, as some areas have restrictions on this breed.


  • Labrador Retriever

    There’s no doubt that labs are one of the most popular breeds of dogs and for good reason. They make terrific family dogs based on their temperament. They are loyal and affectionate dogs, who are also high energy.


  • German Shepherd

    German Shepherds are another popular breed. They are intelligent and highly protective of their owners. They do require regular and abundant exercise so they behave well in the home.


  • Dachshund

    The Dachshund breed is another very loyal breed. They’re known to attach very quickly to a single person in the household. They may not be the best breed around active, young children as they can snap around rough play.


  • Jack Russell

    The Jack Russell breed attracts many owners because they are so darn cute. Yet, if you plan to adopt a Jack Russell you should be prepared for their very high energy level. Some pet owners may find their energy overwhelming over time and should only adopt this breed if they’re prepared to properly exercise the Jack Russell.


  • Chihuahua

    The Chihuahua is a popular breed because of their diminutive size. They make good pets if you have limited space. They can be more nervous than some other breeds. Sometimes this breed exhibits fear-aggression, so be mindful of that when they’re near small children.


  • Boxer

    A boxer can sometimes be confused with a Pit Bull because of their boxy, muscular bodies. Yet, they are great family dogs. They do require abundant and regular exercise so they behave well. They are a breed known for doing well with children too.


  • Beagle

    The Beagle became popular with the introduction of Snoopy and its popularity hasn’t waned since. This is another good breed for a family. The Beagle does require lots of exercise too. One unique feature of Beagles is their inclination to bay and howl. If you have close neighbors, you should consider this before adopting one.


  • American Bulldog

    The American Bulldog is a big dog, often weighing between 75 and 125 pounds. They are the largest member of the bull breed. They are a loving and loyal dog breed, yet some communities have restrictions, so check before adopting.


  • American Staffordshire Terrier

    Originally a farm dog, this breed is large and muscular. They are good with children and make a nice family dog. You want to check the individual dog’s temperament since some have been bred for nefarious purposes. Some communities also have restrictions, so be sure to check ahead.


Most Popular Dog Breeds in Shelters

U.S. Pet Ownership Estimates

It seems a whole lot of Americans recognize the benefits of dog ownership. There are about 77 million dogs in homes across the US with 38.4% of American homes with a dog. An average of 1.6 dogs are in American homes today.


US Pet Ownership Estimates 2022

Is Pet Adoption Right for You?

The social, emotional, and physical benefits of owning a dog are huge for families, individuals, and even the elderly. Yet, dogs require a commitment to care, add expense to the household, and need regular exercise to become good pets.

For many pet owners, choosing to adopt from an animal shelter is the best decision they’ve ever made. The dog becomes a loving member of the family. If you choose to adopt from a shelter, approach it thoughtfully and do your research so you get the right breed for your situation. Then you’ll get all the benefits of owning a dog and won’t need to return the dog to shelter life.