Having a dog can benefit our health in a variety of ways. Recently new reports have suggested an association between dog companionship and lower blood pressure, improved lipid profile and diminished sympathetic responses to stress. Dogs are excellent companions (dog owners have a 24 percent risk reduction for all-cause mortality) and studies show that they can help boost oxytocin levels — aka, the snuggle hormone — and, as a result, decrease cortisol (the stress hormone) levels. But while being in a good mood is always a plus, dogs can also benefit our microbiome and help us feel great on a physical level, too.
What Is the Microbiome?
If there isn’t enough exposure to microbes, our body can’t work on the defense and our immune system weakens.
“The microbiome is the genetic material made up of all the bacteria, fungus, viruses, and protozoa (no, not the pop star in Zenon Girl of the 21st Century) that inhabit the surface and the inside of our bodies,” explains Lina Velikova, an immunologist. “It “helps us digest food [and] extract nutrients, vitamins, and minerals out of the food we take.” In addition to the digestive system, the microbiome also “helps us fight the aggressors from the environment, as the communication between the microbiome and our immunity cells triggers the body to react to the ‘attacks’.”
Some organisms — bacteria, viruses and fungi — are considered pathogenic, which can be harmful to the body if not under control. “When [they are] under control, being at a good ratio comparative to the other organisms, [they] cause no harm,” explains Alissia Zenhausern, NMD, a naturopathic physician at NMD Wellness of Scottsdale. “But, when it has more colonies than normal, it can cause conditions [depending on the type of bacteria],” she adds. For example, if Candida (which is an organism that is normally present in our gut) multiplies, it can become pathogenic and might lead to “oral thrush or vaginal candidiasis.”
That being said, it is all a balance as having too little organisms can tamper with the body’s overall health, which is why sterilized spaces aren’t the best climate for our body’s microbiome to thrive. “If there isn’t enough exposure to microbes, our body can’t work on the defense and our immune system weakens,” explains Velikova. “After spending too much time in a sterilized environment, any bacteria can cause serious damage.” This is why it is important to continuously expose ourselves to germs — and dogs can help us do so.
How Do Dogs Impact Our Microbiome?
If you are a dog owner, you are probably not too concerned about your dog’s slobbery kisses — or, at least you aren’t thinking about it because you are distracted by that cuddle hormone released while petting your fur baby. These kisses, it turns out, can have a positive impact on our body’s microbiome. According to research, dogs introduce different types of bacteria into a home, which can, in turn, diversify the microbiome of the humans living inside of it.
“Dogs visit the places that are not accessible to us and bring the goodies — the microbes — back to us,” says Velikova. “As we pet them, the bacteria and other microbes transfer from their fur to our skin, and some of them end up in our GI system,” she adds, noting that “dogs are also generous hosts to the microbiome in their mouth” as their kisses boost our immune system. “When the bacteria that your dog has brought to you end up in your gut, your body works to fight them off by creating the immune response,” notes Velikova. “The very interaction between the microbiome and your body is what creates the immune cells,” she adds, noting how dog germs are similar to vaccines. “You get a shot so that your body can battle the virus and learn how to respond. Once your body fights a certain kind of virus, it has this ‘knowledge’ stored for future use,” she explains. “Even if the same kind of virus attacks your body, you will be experienced in what works efficiently to win the battle, so the battle will be much shorter than if you would be attacked by it for the first time.”
To put it simply, Velikova says that “dogs diversify the human microbiome and [as a result] our immune system generates more resources to fight them off.” As our microbiome evolves “so does our immune response.” This means that “having a dog enables the more dynamic disease-immune system cycle.” This is important because “we need a variety of organisms in our microbiome, [as] they all function in a variety of ways,” says Zenhausern. “Some help us break down foods and others help us with our hormones, for example.” How do you know if your dog is leaving a positive impact on the bacteria, fungi, and viruses living in your body? In addition to the research, there are “stool analysis like GI Maps that can provide you an estimate of your microbiome,” notes Zenhausern. However, scientists are still learning ways to improve and expand their efforts when it comes to measuring the microbiome. For now, a slobbery smooch from your fur baby is just what the doctor ordered.
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