Keeping it real and using science to explain

Owning a pet, esecially a dog, may lower your risk of heart disease

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at 2019.02.13
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Happy man with a husky dog at winter time

February, the month we celebrate heartfelt love, is also American Heart Month, when we think about how to keep our hearts healthy.

Most of us know that lifestyle choices can help maintain heart health: exercising regularly; getting enough sleep; eating a balanced diet; avoiding smoking, reducing stress, watching our weight, cholesterol, and blood pressure. But, did you know that owning a pet is good for your heart, too?

More than a best friend

In May of 2013, the American Heart Association, the nation’s largest cardiovascular research organization, had a message for the American people after reviewing years of scientific data: Pet ownership, especially dogs, was “probably associated” with a reduced risk of cardiovascular disease.

Dr. Glen Levine, Professor of Medicine at Baylor University and head of the committee that wrote the AHA statement, weighed in on pet ownership. According to Levine, “studies show that most owners form such close bonds with their pets that being in their presence blunts the owners’ reactions to stress and lowers their heart rate.” Furthermore, he went on to say, “there are plausible psychological, sociological and physiological reasons to believe that pet ownership might actually have a causal role in decreasing cardiovascular risk.”

The results of a recent Swedish study strengthens the AHA statement. Researchers found that after studying hospital visit data of over 3 million Swedish residents aged 40-80, dog owners had a reduced risk of heart attack, death from cardiovascular disease, and death from any cause among registered dog owners. It didn’t matter the age, socioeconomic status, sex, or education of the population studies. The researchers stated that the longitudinal population-wide design “provides the most robust evidence so far of a link between dog ownership and health outcomes.”

Other enlightening studies have found that after suffering a heart attack, people with pets have a significantly higher survival rate than people without pets.

So how exactly does owning a pet support the narrative?

Pets Find their Way to Our Hearts

  • Companionship. The emotional bond with a pet who loves unconditionally and provides companionship helps fend off loneliness and isolation, two factors that can raise the risk of heart disease as much as smoking. Feelings of attachment produce biological effects in the brain that reduce stress, anxiety, and blood pressure. Dog owners frequently get a bonus: more engagement with humans while out walking their dog. Many owners strike up conversations with the other dog owners they see on regular walks.
  • Exercise. Because they need to be walked every day, dogs are probably the pets most likely to get their owners to exercise. But dogs aren’t the only pets that encourage their owners to get exercise. For example, most cats want to play but don’t play “fetch.” Instead, many cat owners find themselves needing to be the active player indoors, throwing balls and fetching toys to keep their bored cats entertained!
  • Calming sensory experience. Simply touching, seeing, and hearing a pet can be good for the heart also. Petting a soft, furry animal is a pleasurable experience that lowers stress and blood pressure. The slow, rhythmic, peaceful sound of a cat purring can pull your thoughts away from upsetting things and focus instead on your cat’s breathing and your own—a state conducive to meditating. Studies also show that just watching fish swim in an aquarium lowers blood pressure and heart rate.

Should you get a pet?

Although, adopting a pet may be associated with a reduction in cardiovascular disease, this possibility should not be the primary reason to take in a pet. It’s better to think of the probable health benefits as a “nice plus” if you already have a pet or have decided to adopt one.

Choosing the right pet for you

If you decide to rescue, adopt, or purchase a pet, make sure you and your pet are a good match. Carefully consider the animal’s breed, age, and disposition, and how its needs and behavior will affect your lifestyle and home. Is there room in your home for a big dog? Do family members have allergies? Can you live with additional wear and tear on your home? Are there restrictions on pets where you live?

Adopting from animal shelters such as your local Animal Rescue League, ASPCA, or Humane Society usually involves a conversation with staff to ensure the animal and you are a good fit for each other. Pet adoption websites such as and allow you to view available animals according to your criteria for age, breed, sex, size, and color.

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