Dogs have been man’s best friend since the beginning of time. The four-legged friends were domesticated first for utility purposes; over time, that evolved into keeping them around for companionship. Whatever the reason for keeping these canines around, it seems like it was the right call on our part.
Recent research has shown that dog owners tend to live a longer life, according to two separate studies. While the study does indicate that individuals with heart problems are the ones to benefit, further investigation may show more benefits lying unseen. These recent studies actually built off of earlier research that pointed to the same conclusion about these beloved pooches. Let us take a closer look at the discoveries produced by scientific research.
1. 2013 AHA Scientific Statement
Now, this was the starting point of all research into the subject of whether or not dogs helped their owners live longer lives. The main takeaway point from this study was that dog ownership is associated with a reduction in factors that contribute to cardiac risk and cardiovascular events. This statement was generated from reviewing older research on the subject.
Since cardiovascular disease is the leading cause of death in the US, it is no wonder scientists are looking for natural ways that patients can protect their health. The biggest leading causes of heart problems are obesity and not getting enough exercise, which around 60% of Americans suffer from. Other factors, such as hypertension, are also not under control by most patients. Though interventions have been set into place, they do not seem to be doing much to combat cardiovascular disease efficiently.
Thus, this research was conducted to find a way to help patients with heart problems control their condition. Protective factors seem to increase with the addition of a pet. The most obvious improvement is that individuals with dogs tend to increase their activity level, which, as was noted above, is one of the leading causes of heart issues.
Other improvements that were observed were favorable lipid profiles, better cholesterol, lower blood pressure, and a diminished response to stress. Let the record show that research has shown that owning any pet lowers anxiety, depression, loneliness, and social isolation.
The study currently under question took a look at two separate reviews to see what conclusions they could draw. It seems that both studies show that pet ownership reduces the risk of death due to cardiac issues. It should be noted here that while the studies cannot outright prove that dogs protect against heart disease, the studies highly suggest some protective factors offered by pets. It should be comforting to know that around 3 million people were observed for this study so that the results can be heavily relied upon.
The focus of cardiovascular research has focused on how isolation and lack of exercise have contributed to mortality. This concept caused researchers to focus on these areas in the current study because previous research showed that dog ownership decreased social isolation while increasing physical activities. It led scientists to believe that owning a dog could have better outcomes for cardiovascular patients as opposed to those who do not suffer heart problems.
This study looked at many individuals: 182,000 of them reported having had a heart attack while 155,000 declared having had a stroke. Of the heart attack victims, around 6% owned dogs, while 5% of the stroke victims owned a pet. The subjects were monitored for 11 years. Patients were aged 40 to 85 years old. Pet ownership was determined by programs that mandate reporting of individuals with dogs (the Swedish Board of Agriculture and the Swedish Kennel Club).
The results were in favor of owning a pet: after suffering a heart attack, those who lived alone were around 30% more likely to die during the follow-up period than those who owned a pet and also suffered a heart attack. For those who had suffered a stroke, patients were 27% more likely to perish if they did not own a pet. The study then examined whether the individuals who passed on within an average of four years after their cardiovascular event were dog owners or not. What they found shouldn’t surprise you: 20% of dog owners were less likely to pass away after a heart attack while 18% were less likely to die after a stroke compared to the non-owners.
The Swedish National Patient Registry study also looked at whether or not having a partner, or a child would affect the cardiovascular health of patients. It showed that if patients did not live alone, they had around a 15% lower risk of death due to a heart attack compared to the 30% if patients lived alone after a cardiovascular event. If patients suffered a stroke and had a family, their risk was decreased by 12%.
The conclusion was simple: it seems that owning a dog decreases the risk factors for developing cardiovascular issues and having subsequent heart attacks or strokes. As has been noted before, owning a dog naturally increases physical activity, which is one of the best ways to combat heart problems. Owning a dog is also known to decrease loneliness and isolation, other leading causes of poor heart health. Dogs force people to get out and socialize, which is an integral part of being healthy.
Given the results of this study, pet adoption should start being recommended by doctors to their patients to help prevent further complications from arising. If patients live alone and have had previous heart attacks or strokes, having a dog will add loads of benefits without adding any harm.
This study did a great job of controlling for confounding factors. They took into account age, gender, income, and previous history of cardiovascular events. However, more research is needed to confirm the relationship between dog ownership and survival.
Dr. Caroline K. Kramer is from the University of Toronto and took it upon herself to study the effects of pet ownership has on the health of those with cardiovascular issues. She decided to go as far back as 1950 and looked at studies that included over 3 million patients over ten studies. Of the studies examined, nine included comparisons of all-cause mortality outcomes for dog owners as well as non-owners and four compared just cardiovascular results between dog owners and non-owners. The study looked at individuals in the United States as well as seven other developed countries.
Kramer found that patients were around 20% less likely to die over the next decade if they were to own a dog. If, however, the person in question were to have suffered a cardiovascular event, they were 65% less likely to die if they had a dog by their side.
Overall mortality due to heart attacks and other cardiovascular events were decreased by 30% by merely owning a dog. She also noted that increased physical activity played a significant role in the patient’s cardiovascular health.
Studies that were deemed appropriate for research included those who observed individuals 18 years or older, those who included original data from a prospective study, those that evaluated dog ownership at the outset of the study, and those that reported all-cause or cardiovascular mortality of patients. Studies that were not included were those that were retrospective in nature, those that did not provide an absolute number of events that occurred, and those that reported non-fatal cardiovascular events.
Most studies have shown that those people who own dogs have lower blood pressure. Specifically, an Australian study discovered that dog owners have significantly lower systolic blood pressure compared to non-owners despite similar body mass index and socioeconomic circumstances. In another study looking at married couples without pets, both systolic and diastolic blood pressure were lower in those who owned a pet, whether it be a dog or a cat.
There have also been studies conducted online to get an idea of how dog ownership protects those with cardiovascular issues. These studies are all based on self-reporting: it was found that non-owners reported significantly higher hypertension than those who had an animal at home. A large study looking at almost 1200 people showed they have lower pulse pressure and a lower mean arterial pressure.
There was another randomized study done with individuals who were borderline hypertension. In this instance, participants were randomly assigned to groups: one group adopted dogs from a shelter, and the other group did not. Before the study began, everyone was asked to have their blood pressure taken. It seems that the baseline for everyone at the outset of the study was similar.
With time (at two and five months after the investigation started), blood pressures were taken from both groups. At both intervals, it was found that those who were put into the group of dog adoption had significantly lower systolic blood pressure than those who opted out of dog adoption. Interestingly enough, at an even later follow-up date, after all of the participants in both groups had adopted a dog, everyone involved had similarly lower systolic blood pressure.
All this fancy word means is that a person’s blood contains more lipids than it should. Sadly, there is little evidence out there for the effects dog ownership has on lipid levels in the body. In one particular study, male dog owners were found to have significantly lower total cholesterol and triglyceride levels than those who did not own a dog.
Again, we have some online studies to examine. It seems in this particular study, non-owners were more likely to report elevated serum cholesterol levels and diabetes mellitus than those who did own a dog and regularly walked them. These findings remained valid after accounting for the owner’s age and the intensity of physical activity. Another interesting finding from this study was that tobacco use was more common among those that did not own a dog versus those that did.
12. Physical Activity Associated with Dog Ownership
Of all animals that can help provide physical activity, dogs seem to be the best motivators. Several studies support the fact that dog owners engage in more physical activity, such as walking compared to those that are dog-less. Dog owners quickly achieve the recommended amount of physical activity in a day: non-owners typically do not.
One particular study looked at Japanese adults: after adjusting for age, sex, and socioeconomic circumstances, dog owners were found to be more physically engaged in walking and other physical activities compared to those that did not have a dog at home. About half of the Japanese dog owners met the recommended level of physical activity per day compared to Japanese non-owners.
Like the Japanese study, an Australian study was also conducted to look at the physical activity levels of those who owned dogs and those who did not. This study also controlled for the sociodemographic, neighborhood, social environment, and other intrapersonal factors. This study found that dog owners participated in significantly more physical activity (measured in minutes) per week compared to those who wished not to own a dog.
Here comes a Canadian study! This one found that dog owners participate in around 300 minutes per week walking compared to 168 minutes for non-owners. It seems that having a dog alone is what accounts for so much extra exercise.
Moving to the States, another study was undertaken by the California Health Interview Survey. This study also controlled for factors such as sociodemographic, health, and housing characteristics. The one significant finding from this study is that dog owners walked around 20 minutes more per week than those who never owned a dog. Sadly, no other research has shown that having different types of animals increases your physical activity. It seems that because walking a dog is part of their upkeep, it almost forces dog owners to be more active by nature than those who either own no pets or own less active pets.
Studies have also looked at whether activity levels change after a pet has been acquired. Several studies have shown that, after adopting a dog or a cat from an animal shelter, participants have shown a marked and sustained increase in the number and duration of recreational walks but found no change amongst those who did not adopt an animal from the shelter.
An Australian study undertaken by the Residential Environments project discovered that participants reported an increase in recreational walking if they owned a dog: walking increased by an average of about 25 minutes per week. The biggest reason for the increase in walking? Dogs seem to have a positive effect on how owners view walking as well as provide motivation and social support that non-owners do not benefit from these things.
As we have just discussed, physical activity is one way that pet owners can prevent and decrease the incidence of obesity. The other component, also only touched upon, is the social support that comes with owning a dog. Surprisingly enough, social support is one of the leading factors that contribute to pet adoption and behavioral changes, which includes weight loss. Having a dog has the motivating power to get people out of the house and moving because they know that this is best for their pets. Many pet owners have reported feeling safer in their neighborhoods, having a dog to walk with them.
While dog ownership alone does not account for a decrease in obesity, dog walking does! A study looking at around 2200 people found that BMI scores were lowest amongst dog walkers compared to both owners who did not walk their dogs and non-owners. Those who walked their dogs also seemed to have no problem meeting the daily recommendations for vigorous physical activity.
Another study showed that people who did not own a dog had a two-fold higher odds of having weight issues, and those who did not walk their dogs had a 60% higher odds of being overweight compared to dog owners who took the time to walk their pet every day. In a study of younger children, the rate of obesity or being overweight seemed to be predictably lower among those families that owned a dog compared to a family who did not own a dog.
Yet another study was undertaken by the People and Pets Exercising Together (PPET) review. This study was trying to determine if people who walked their dogs lose more weight over one year compared to people who walk by themselves. Pairs of individuals who were obese and also had overweight pets and obese people without pets were under controlled study for a year. The participants were given dietary and physical activity instructions, and pets were placed on a calorie-controlled diet. Although they were hoping for a better outcome, it seems that both groups experienced similar weight loss.
17. Autonomic Function and Cardiovascular Reactivity
The autonomic nervous system is tightly related to the heart: it helps to control heart rate as well as many other functions. Cardiovascular reactivity is a more complicated concept. This term refers to the difference in heart rate, blood pressure, and a slew of other indicators of heart health between periods of rest and periods of stress. Changes are often observed in heart rate and systolic blood pressure.
Cardiovascular reactivity to stress was tested in 240 couples; half of the participants owned either a cat or a dog. People with pets exhibited lower resting baseline heart rates and blood pressure as compared to non-owners. Pet owners also showed smaller increases in heart rate and blood pressure in response to stress and took a shorter amount of time to recover and return to their baseline after being exposed to a stressor. An exciting discovery was that recovery time was even faster if pet owners had their pets with them during the test; the overall reaction to stress was also lower if the animals were present.
Another study looked at cardiovascular reactivity to mental stress. A total of 48 hypertensive patients with high-stress jobs who wished to decrease their daily stress participated in the study. Individuals were randomly assigned into two groups: a pet adoption group or a non-adoption group. Physiological responses to stress were recorded before pets were acquired, and six months after pet adoption. When testing was done, pets were present for those who owned them. Although the baseline of stress responses was similar between owners and non-owners, pet owners had smaller increases in systolic and diastolic blood pressure, heart rate, and plasma renin activity after six months of pet ownership.
This study measured heart rate variability with 24-hour Holter monitors to look at autonomic function. It was found that individuals with at least one cardiac risk factor and who owned a pet (either a cat or a dog) had an increase in parasympathetic nervous system function and a decrease in sympathetic nervous system activities. This highlights the effect had a pet has on the way the body handles stress; this shows that pet owners are more adaptable to changes in the cardiovascular system.
19. Does Caring for a Pet Lower the Risk of a Heart Attack?
Another study looked at patients who had just suffered a heart attack. The study showed that those who did own a pet, whether it was a dog or a cat, had a higher rate of heart rate variability compared to non-owners. These findings have been associated with decreased cardiac death among patients.
It is worth making a note here about pet ownership. Although most of the studies discussed so far included only cats and dogs, research has shown that the same benefits apply to those who own other pets, including goats, snakes, fish, and chimpanzees. Virtual pets also seem to have some protective effect.
Cardiovascular disease encompasses many issues regarding the heart. It refers to conditions that narrow or block blood vessels that can then lead to a heart attack, chest pain, or stroke. It seems that pets may offer protective factors for those who suffer from CVD. It was shown in a study performed by the Cardiac Arrhythmia Suppression Trial that survival after a cardiovascular event was highly associated with owning a pet. Dog ownership correctly was shown to decrease mortality, with mortality for non-owners being four times more likely after an incident involving the heart. Sadly, cat owners did not receive the same benefits.
Another study looked at patients a year after suffering from either a heart attack or chest pain. It showed that pet owners survived more often than those who did not own a pet. The finding was independent of the patient’s age and severity of the cardiovascular disease. It seems that a lack of pet ownership can be predictive of mortality for those who suffer heart issues.
This professor at the Tulane University School of Medicine reported some interesting facts after these findings were announced. He declared that women are about ten times more likely than men to die from a heart attack or a stroke than they are from breast cancer. It would seem, then, that women have more to benefit from owning a dog than men do. The furry friends not only help with the physical side of things; they also help alleviate mental health issues as well. Dogs assist owners with managing stress, increasing activity, and decreasing isolation and loneliness.
He also noted that walking a dog 20 to 30 minutes a day will help individuals meet the weekly recommended activity level of 150 minutes of moderate exercise. Sadly, Ferdinand was not included in this latest study. He did warn against blindly following the results produced by these recent studies. He noted that dogs alone could not overcome the risk factors associated with the heart, such as high blood pressure, cholesterol, diabetes, and smoking. He says the best combination for helping those with cardiovascular problems is to have an active dog and to work against cardiovascular risk factors actively.
A cardiologist from Israel Deaconess Medical Center also had a few words to say about the findings just published. He believes that mental health benefits should not be overlooked: he reiterates that dogs alleviate anxiety and loneliness while increasing self-esteem and overall mood. He even mentions a finding unearthed by the 2018 General Social Survey, which determined that dog owners were significantly happier than cat owners.
Over and over again we have seen how having a dog increases physical activity–this is just common sense. But Kazi brings up other good points. Dog owners spend significantly more time outdoors than those who do not have a dog; spending time outside for whatever reason has been found to benefit your overall health. He notes that even merely petting a dog can decrease a person’s blood pressure; however, the benefits seem only to come about if the dog is familiar to you.
The current literature does not entirely convince Kazi. He believes that the confounding factors of the individuals should have been accounted for. Kazi stated that dog owners tend to be younger, have more money, have more education, and are typically married. All of these factors tend to improve cardiovascular outcomes.
The results could have occurred since healthier people are more likely to adopt or purchase a pup compared to more impoverished and less fit individuals. Kazi also brings up the idea of reverse causation: the concept that healthier people are more likely to adopt a pet compared to someone who is always ill. Despite his reservations about the studies, he does believe that there is some truth to the connection between dog ownership and survival.
These studies involve at least two groups of participants: in this case, those who are forced to adopt a dog and those that are not. One study in this category placed cardiac patients in either a pet adoption group or a non-owner group; the group that adopted a dog or a cat showed a decrease in blood pressure response due to a stressful event.
Another small study taken place in Korea randomly assigned nursing home residents to pet crickets and asked them to take care of the insect for a minimum of eight weeks. After this time, the insect caring group exhibited significant improvements in depression and cognitive ability compared to the group that did not care for crickets.
While the results from the Canadian and Swedish studies seem promising, we have to consider the boundaries of the studies used to produce such results. In particular, these results came about from observational studies, which is simply observing what is already naturally occurring. This idea means that these studies alone cannot be used to determine that dog ownership ensures survival.
It may be possible that other factors contributed to the health of the individuals under review. While these studies did account for some confounding factors, it was not possible to predict and control for all of them.
26. An Important Mayo Clinic Study About Dog Ownership
This Mayo Clinic study looked at a total of 1800 individuals to determine what benefits dogs have for patients with cardiovascular problems. It found that those who owned a dog were more likely to engage in healthier lifestyle choices, such as regular exercise and eating healthy.
These individuals also had more favorable blood sugar levels compared to those who did not own a canine. The two may or may not be related, but the results of this particular test did reveal that owning a dog can help with many health ailments including blood sugar levels.
Another study was used to examine the mental health benefits of owning a dog. It looked specifically at older individuals, at a total of 2,000 adults between the ages of 50 and 80. More than half of participants owned pets; of those who owned pets, around 80% reported that their companions helped reduce their stress level. Pet owners who claimed to live alone and to be in poor health benefited as well: 70% of them stated that their animals helped them cope with both mental and physical symptoms.
Be warned though: pets, dogs especially, are hard work, and their care should not be taken lightly. Elderly individuals should only consider a dog if they are physically capable of keeping up with the demands of the pet.