The Dog Effect: How Owning a Pet Improves Your Heart Health

New study shows dog owners are healthier than animal-indifferent humans.

Unsplash / ipet photo

Last month, I spent a weekend watching Sonny, an adorable but needy goldendoodle. I walked an average of 8.5 miles every day with Sonny, taking him to dog parks or walking by the river. I was in a good mood and felt healthier; when I looked around, all the other dog owners seemed happy and fit too. A new study in Mayo Clinic Proceedings: Innovations, Quality & Outcomes shows this experience, call it “the dog effect,” may be a real phenomenon.

The researchers behind the study, which was published online ahead of the journal’s September issue, found that owning a pet could help maintain a healthy heart — especially if that pet is a dog.

“Getting a dog, either adopting, rescuing, or buying it, might help your cardiovascular health and help you have a healthier life, Jose Medina-Inojosa, M.D., one of the study’s authors, tells Inverse.

Spending more time with puppy Sonny may make me healthier.

Michael Cullen

Medina-Inojosa and his team reached this conclusion by analyzing the health metrics from over 1,700 people participating in the Kardiozive Brno 2030 study, in which a randomly chosen 1 percent of the population of the entire city of Brno, Czech Republic, was assessed for cardiovascular risk factors.

Researchers scored participants on seven health behaviors and metrics to calculate their overall cardiovascular health scores: body mass index, diet, physical activity, smoking status, blood pressure, blood glucose, and total cholesterol. None of the participants had a history of heart disease.

Researchers compared the cardiovascular health scores of pet owners to those of people who did not own pets. They also compared dog owners to other pet owners — including people with cats, lizards, or cockatoos — and those who did not own pets.

These comparisons revealed higher cardiovascular health scores for pet parents. Pet owners, especially dog owners, reported higher amounts of physical activity, better diets, and healthier glucose levels.

These results make intuitive sense for one major reason: Pets, especially dogs, make you move more.

Beyond that, though, they provide comfort and companionship, and reduce stress. Other research supports these health benefits: owning a pet leads to lower blood pressure, lower cholesterol, less loneliness, and increased physical activity.

Dogs increase their owners' levels of physical activity.

Unsplash / Andrew Schultz

A 2017 study published in Journal of Personality and Social Psychology showed pet owners had greater self-esteem, were more physically fit, tended to be less lonely, were more conscientious, were more extraverted, tended to be less fearful, and tended to be less preoccupied than non-owners.

These social factors are critical for heart health, too. Depression and loneliness or low social support are documented risk factors for heart attacks and cardiovascular disease.

The study did show one more surprising finding, though: Dog owners were more likely to smoke. But Medina attributes this trend to cultural factors— the study participants live in the Czech Republic, where smoking is prevalent.

But are people who get dogs just healthier to begin with? Or do they become healthier after they adopt a furry friend?

“It’s kind of an egg or a chick situation; who came first?” Medina says. “We don’t know.”

For now, though, Medina says he knows getting a dog seems to improve cardiovascular health.

So if you’re on the fence (or maybe trying to convince your partner to purchase a pup), maybe add a healthier heart to your list of reasons.

Objective: To investigate the association of pet ownership, and specifically dog ownership, with cardiovascular diseases (CVD) risk factors and cardiovascular health (CVH) in the Kardiovize Brno 2030 study, a randomly selected prospective cohort in Central Europe.
Patients and Methods: We included 1769 subjects (aged from 25 to 64 years; 44.3% males) with no history of CVD who were recruited from January 1, 2013, to December 19, 2014. We compared sociodemographic characteristics, CVD risk factors, CVH metrics (ie, body mass index, healthy diet, physical activity level, smoking status, blood pressure, fasting glucose, and total cholesterol), and score between pet owners and non-pet owners or dog owners and several other subgroups.
Results: Approximately 42% of subjects owned any type of pet: 24.3% owned a dog and 17.9% owned another animal. Pet owners, and specifically dog owners, were more likely to report physical activity, diet, and blood glucose at ideal level, and smoking at poor level, which resulted in higher CVH score than non-pet owners (median, 10; interquartile range = 3 vs median, 9; interquartile range = 3; P=0.006). Compared with owners of other pets, dog owners were more likely to report physical activity and diet at ideal level. The comparison of dog owners with non-dog owners yielded similar results. After adjustment for covariates, dog owners exhibited higher CVH scores than non-pet owners (β=0.342; SE=0.122; P=0.005), other pet-owners (β=0.309; SE=0.151; P=0.041), and non-dog owners (β=0.341; SE=0.117; P=0.004).
Conclusion: Except for smoking, dog owners were more likely to achieve recommended level of behavioral CVH metrics (physical activity and diet) than non-dog owners, which translated into better CVH.
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