Is man’s best friend even better than we thought?

In the first of a new CAM series looking at what we do from an evolutionary medicine perspective, psychoneuroimmunologist Jamie Richards and Canine- Human Interface researcher Wilson share some surprising information about four-legged contributions to human health.

A fearless companion, a night- time guard, a hunter, an ally, a friend and an amazing exercise partner. Our four legged friends have snuggled up to us for many years. Yet only now are we really beginning to understand the true benefits of having dogs in our lives.

What if dogs are the greatest health supplement we’ve ever used? It appears that allopathic practitioners are well aware of this but stop way short of recommending a trip to the local animal shelter as a first line therapy. Looking at the mounting evidence, I can’t help but feel this needs to change. The more “civilised” we become, in a technological society, the more we need anchors to our more natural past.

Text and context

A very PNI saying is “going back to the future of health”. Looking into our evolutionary past provides the solutions for very modern health issues. From a psychoneuroimmunology perspective we look for conflict between the individual and the individual’s environment, better known as “text and context”. This, of course, includes food, water, toxins and the usual suspects, but I increasingly see isolation, loneliness, relationship issues (work, family, and personal) at the heart of the problem. Don’t forget that the immune system can’t just invent a new solution for a new problem. Confronted with a modern life problem it can only take a guess from the responses it has already evolved. When it gets it wrong we’re left with conflict and the beginnings of disease and ill-health. Dogs bridge this gap very well. The companionship they provide is immeasurable.
They adapt to our modern lives but remain wild at heart and demand that we go out in all weather, get dirty, give up on obsessive cleaning and enjoy the wonder of the natural world. I can’t think of a better way to spend a day than roaming a stormy, windswept beach with an utterly overjoyed pooch. Let’s just list some of the known benefits that dogs bring to the party:

  • It turns out they may be one of the best probiotics we’ve ever discovered
  • Children that grow up in homes with dogs are far less likely to develop allergies
  • Had a heart attack? You’re four times more likely to survive if you have the company of a dog
  • Alzheimer’s patients have fewer anxious outbursts with dogs in the home and carers report feeling less burdened with dogs present
  • Dog-owners with chronic debilitating illness are less likely to suffer depression
  • Stock brokers (I know, shoot me) who adopted dogs have lower blood pressure in stressful situations
  • Dog owners (that walk their dogs) are far less likely to be obese
  • Dogs raise serotonin, dopamine and oxytocin who needs heroin and cocaine? Just think Rodney, if all this were in tablet form we’d be millionaires right now! And this is only scratching the surface. Researchers from the University of Chicago and several international institutions found that several groups of genes in humans and dogs – including those related to diet and digestion, neurological processes and disease
  • have been evolving in parallel for thousands of years (Nature Communications 2013, doi:10.1038/ncomms2814). Known as convergent evolution, it’s remarkably rare in nature, but makes perfect sense when you consider we largely share the same living conditions. This also means we share many diseases like diabetes, certain cancers and epilepsy.

Rx dog, 3x pd

Personally I’ve found my hound to be a great conversation starter. I’ve developed friendships with people that would never have crossed my path in the absence of the stinky beast. Wherever I go, people want to discuss my four-legged friend and that brings immense and unexpected pleasure. I see the joy in people’s faces as Wilson leans in for a scratch. These are often lonely or homeless people where a little affection goes a very long way.

A lack of affection or even attractiveness can be remarkably damaging for our future health. Negative thought patterns lead to
individuals being much more likely to make the wrong choices for themselves. A daily dose of dog, three times a day before food, can address this more effectively than anything I’ve encountered, and asa practitioner I’d be a fool to ignore it.

In future I’d like to see more research into  dogs and childhood development. The work on allergies is excellent, but I think that there is enough in it to look into dogs as human guardians. The pressures on parents to return to work after birth are enormous. As we no longer live in compact, isolated societies, with close family to care for our young, we increasingly turn to strangers for the job. In my opinion this creates conflict in young children, especially the challenged ones. No familiar smells and sounds. The smell of testosterone from dad letting us know we’re guarded, the comforting smell of mum letting us know help is at hand. Dogs might bridge that gap?

Imagine, a constant, familiar and calming presence leading to less fearful, forward-thinking and more confident adults who never feel left behind.

Is this all new? Probably not. Our forebears knew all this a very long time ago and, like so many things, we just forgot along the way.

Please don’t forget this is a two-way street. For those of us that care about our own health it’s imperative to do the same for our animal friends. This means evolutionarily appropriate diets, including raw food for dogs, especially bones and whole animal eating, natural herbs and bitters. Dogs are also fantastic at choosing their own remedies (zoopharmacognosy), and I suspect we could all learn a lot from that as well.