Owning a dog may be your best prescription for a healthy heart.
In celebration of National Heart Month, we’re taking a look at all the ways that having a dog in your life is good for your heart.
While there are no guarantees what effect your dog will have on your health, there’s a growing body of research that having a dog makes you more active, reduces stress and lowers your blood pressure.
In 2013, the American Heart Association (AHA) convened a panel of experts to review reams of data on the cardiovascular benefits of owning a pet and concluded that owning a dog in particular was “probably associated” with a reduced risk of heart disease.
Their conclusions are supported by such organizations as the National Institutes of Health, Harvard Medical School and the Journal of Vascular and Interventional Neurology, among others.
Here are some of the ways that sharing your life with a dog may make your heart healthier:
- Dog owners tend to be more active, according to research funded by the National Institutes of Health. That morning dog walk gets you up and moving, even if doesn’t involve a gym. But with organizations such as the K9 Fit Club your dog can even join you in a workout.
- Dog owners tend to be in better shape than people who don’t walk a dog, according to research by the National Institutes of Health on 2,000 adults.
- Dog owners tend to have lower blood pressure than people who don’t have a dog, according to several studies. This will come as no surprise to anyone who has ever spent time stroking or brushing a dog. Researchers at the Center for Animal Wellness at the Missouri University College of Veterinary Medicine showed that petting a dog 15 minutes to half and hour could lower blood pressure by 10 percent.
- Dog owners respond better to stress. The bond you have with your dog helps you recover faster from stressful events. Petting a dog helps lower blood pressure. The American Journal of Cardiology found that pet owners had hearts that adapted better to stressful situations than non-pet owners; their heart rates and blood pressure tended not to spike as much under stress and to return to normal more quickly.
- Dog owners tend to have modestly lower cholesterol and triglyceride levels, both of which are risk factors for heart disease.
- People with cardiovascular disease who have pets are more likely to survive heart attacks, according to the research reviewed by the AHA. A 1995 study by Erika Friedman at the University of Maryland Hospital of 392 people found that heart attack patients with dogs were eight times more likely to be alive a year later than people without dogs.
- Being around a dog (or other pet) increases your sense of well-being, helps connect you with others and decreases loneliness and depression. All of these effects also make it easier to take care of yourself if you have chronic health conditions such as heart disease or diabetes.
Even with all this good news, take notes that the AHA and others are not saying that there is a cause-and-effect relationship between having a dog and having a healthy heart. Other still unknown factors may make pet owners different that contributes to their improved heart health.
As Dr. Glenn N. Levine, a professor at the Baylor College of Medicine who headed the AHA committee that reviewed the data on the cardiovascular benefits of pet ownership, said, “We didn’t want to make this too strong of a statement, but there are plausible psychological, sociological and physiological reasons to believe that pet ownership might actually have a causal role in decreasing cardiovascular risk.”
He cautioned that if you sit on the couch, smoke and don’t watch what you eat, you’ll be unhealthy even if you do own a pet.
None of the experts involved in these studies are recommending adopting a pet solely because of its effect on your heart’s health.
“The primary purpose of pet adoption or rescue should be to provide the pet with a loving home and to derive enjoyment of the pet,” wrote Dr. Levine in the AHA report.