Pet Talk: Your dog may protect you from heart disease

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According to the American Heart Association, there have been reported associations between pet ownership and cardiovascular health in the last decade. Owning pets – specifically dogs – may help reduce the risk of heart disease in pet owners in a number of ways.

In addition to companionship, dogs can encourage laughter, physical activity, and other benefits effective in decreasing stress levels. Dr. Sarah Griffin, lecturer at the Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences explained why owning dogs may be related to decreased stress levels. “The American Heart Association has said that owning pets can have a positive effect on how people react to stress,” she said. “Chronic stress has not been shown to directly increase risk factors associated with heart disease, but it can lead to unhealthy lifestyle choices that are associated with high blood pressure and increased risk for heart disease.”

High blood pressure, another common contributor to heart disease, has also been analyzed in relation to dog ownership. “Reduction in blood pressure reduces risk for coronary heart disease,” Griffin explained. “A group of Oregon State University graduate students recently found dog owners have significantly lower levels of systolic blood pressure than people who don’t own dogs.”

In addition, dog owners are more likely to achieve the recommended level of physical activity per day through walking their dog and taking their dog to parks. “The American Heart Association says owning a dog is likely associated with lower heart disease risk, partially because dog owners are 54 percent more likely to get the recommended level of physical activity each day,” Griffin said. “Many people who own dogs take them on walks, go to the park, or go to dog parks. These activities provide exercise for both the owner and dog.”

However, some people question if healthier people tend to own dogs, or if dogs really do have a positive impact on cardiovascular health. For example, there are many dog owners that do not participate in daily exercise with their dog. Furthermore, it is important to keep in mind that no study proves that owning a pet, particularly a dog, reduces the risk of heart disease. Having a dog may help with factors associated with a healthy heart, but a direct link between cardiovascular health and dog ownership has not been found.

It is still unclear whether owning a dog directly reduces the risk for heart disease, but recent studies suggest that dogs may be beneficial to heart health. Despite positive new research, Griffin does not encourage people to get a dog solely for a reduced heart disease risk. “Getting a dog is not the answer to better heart health, but actively caring for a dog does promote a healthier lifestyle,” she said.

Pet Talk is a service of the College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences, Texas A&M University.

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