Heart Healthy Benefits of Owning a Pet

Written by: Madison Estrella
Medically reviewed by: Rob Philibert MD PhD

Owning a pet has several emotional and physical benefits that can help you live a happier and healthier lifestyle. Recent studies show that owning a pet, especially cats and dogs, can improve the health of pet owners and reduce their risk for cardiovascular disease through various means.

A Reduced Risk for Cardiovascular Disease

Researchers at Uppsala University in Sweden conducted a nationwide cohort study that examined the association between dog ownership and the incidence of cardiovascular disease. Upon examining the health records of 3,432,153 individuals between the ages of 40 to 80, researchers found that dog ownership was associated with a lower risk for heart attack, stroke, heart failure, ischemic stroke, and cardiovascular disease.

This study found that compared to individuals living in a multi-person household without a dog, those who lived in a multi-person household with a dog were less likely to die from a cardiovascular cause by 15%. As for dog owners who lived alone, the health benefit of owning a dog was even greater with the risk of cardiovascular deaths being lower by 36% with a 11% decrease for their risk of having a heart attack. Dr. Mubanga and colleagues attribute this pattern to the fact that dog ownership requires a substantial amount of physical activity. While the task of dog walking can be distributed among individuals in a multi-person household, dog owners living alone are more likely to walk their dog more frequently.

Additional studies found that the degree of pet ownership benefits vary by breed and even marital status of the owner(s). Nonetheless, pets are shown to provide social support and promote physical activity in their owners, which in turn can improve their cardiovascular health.

The Effects of Pet Ownership on the Body

Pet ownership comes with much responsibility when caring for your pet. As it turns out, the process of pet care can also boost your own health as there are several emotional and physical benefits that can potentially improve one’s risk for developing heart disease.

For instance, pet ownership has been associated with a reduced risk for hypertension (high blood pressure). High blood pressure is a major risk factor for heart disease as it can lead to erosion of the arterial walls, buildup of plaque, and the thickening of the heart muscle. This condition can be prevented through a number of dietary and lifestyle changes, but studies show that owning a pet can help lower blood pressure. In fact, a study conducted by the University of Western Australia found that pet owners had a significantly lower systolic blood pressure than those who did not own a pet and were of a similar body mass index (BMI) and socioeconomic status. [2]

One aspect of pet ownership that could contribute to this trend is that pet ownership (particularly dog ownership) involves a lot of physical activity, which is a vital aspect to improving heart health. In fact, a British study examining the relationship between dog ownership and exercise reported that dog owners are four times more likely to achieve the daily recommended amount of physical activity than dog owners who do not walk their dogs. [3] There are a number of physiological benefits of dog walking such as increased blood flow, lower cholesterol, and a reduced risk for obesity, which both contribute to a lower risk of cardiovascular disease. Thus, dog walking not only allows you to bond with your pet, but it also encourages you to get in the physical activity you need to stay in shape.

Aside from the physiological benefits for the body, owning a pet has also been found to alleviate psychosocial stress factors for cardiovascular disease such as social isolation, depression and loneliness. Many pets are well attuned to the emotions of their owners and are excellent companions, especially when you are alone feeling down.

The psychosomatic connection can be evident in the fact that pet owners tend to have a lower blood pressure when stressed. They are also likely to recover from stress more quickly in the presence of their pet. [4] This suggests that when pet owners develop an emotional connection with their pet, the body gradually learns how to better cope with stress in a way that does not put additional strain on the cardiovascular system. Additionally, recent studies have noticed the improvement of the autonomic function of the heart among pet owners. This means that over time, their baseline parameters of cardiovascular health, such as heart rate and blood pressure, have improved. [5]

Become a Pet Owner and Adopt Today!

The beauty of owning a pet is that you and your pet are able to be there for one another. While the cardiovascular benefits of owning a pet are plentiful, never forget that owning a pet also requires much responsibility and unconditional love. Being willing to open your heart to a new cat or dog (or pet of your choice) can be one step towards reaping the heart healthy benefits of owning a pet.

References:

  1. Mubanga, M., Byberg, L., Nowak, C., Egenvall, A., Magnusson, P. K., Ingelsson, E., & Fall, T. (2017). Dog ownership and the risk of cardiovascular disease and death – a nationwide cohort study. Scientific Reports, 7(1). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-017-16118-6
  2. Cutt, H., Giles-Corti, B., Knuiman, M., Timperio, A., & Bull, F. (2008). Understanding Dog Owners’ Increased Levels of Physical Activity: Results From RESIDE. American Journal of Public Health, 98(1), 66–69. https://doi.org/10.2105/ajph.2006.103499
  3. Westgarth, C., Christley, R. M., Jewell, C., German, A. J., Boddy, L. M., & Christian, H. E. (2019). Dog owners are more likely to meet physical activity guidelines than people without a dog: An investigation of the association between dog ownership and physical activity levels in a UK community. Scientific Reports, 9(1). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-019-41254-6
  4. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (2020, April 6). The Power of Pets. National Institutes of Health. https://newsinhealth.nih.gov/2018/02/power-pets.
  5. Allen, K., Blascovich, J., & Mendes, W. B. (2002). Cardiovascular Reactivity and the Presence of Pets, Friends, and Spouses: The Truth About Cats and Dogs. Psychosomatic Medicine, 64(5), 727–739. https://doi.org/10.1097/00006842-200209000-00005
  6. Levine, G. N., Allen, K., Braun, L. T., Christian, H. E., Friedmann, E., Taubert, K. A., Thomas, S. A., Wells, D. L., & Lange, R. A. (2013). Pet Ownership and Cardiovascular Risk. Circulation, 127(23), 2353–2363. https://doi.org/10.1161/cir.0b013e31829201e1
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