Can Getting a Dog Help You Live Longer?
NOVEMBER 12, 2019
Dog ownership and cardiovascular health
Much has been written about the effect of dog ownership on mental well-being, but can it impact your physical health as well?
Two studies published last month aimed to answer this challenging question. Dhruv S. Kazi, MD, MSc, MS, Associate Director of the Smith Center for Outcomes Research in Cardiology and Director of the Cardiac Critical Care Unit at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, weighed in on the conversation in an editorial accompanying those two studies in Circulation: Cardiovascular Quality and Outcomes, a Journal of the American Heart Association.
"My interpretation of the collective evidence to date is that the association between dog ownership and improved survival is real, and is likely at least partly causal," he wrote.
The authors of one study examined data on 3.8 million participants and determined that dog owners had a 24 percent lower mortality rate as compared to non-owners, and this association persisted even after adjusting for demographic and socioeconomic factors. The data in the second study showed even greater benefits among survivors of a prior heart attack or stroke.
Dr. Kazi discussed the several potential ways dogs can improve health. Dog owners get more exercise and spend more time outdoors. Even brief interactions with dogs have been shown to reduce blood pressure and stress levels, in the community and in health care settings (and hence the therapy dogs we see around the hospital!). Dogs have even been shown to have beneficial effects among critically ill patients in ICUs.
Dr. Kazi highlighted that dogs have a particularly strong effect on mental health — they reduce rates of depression, reduce isolation and anxiety, and improve self-esteem. All of these can improve one's heart health in the long run.
What about cats? Or fish? Other studies on pet ownership have shown associations between owning an animal and better health, but the recent papers focused only on canine companions.
There is a softer side of the equation, as well. Dr. Kazi wrote that although a growing body of evidence now supports the idea that adopting a dog may enhance the mental and physical well-being of its human companion, the real reward of dog ownership may be in the unconditional love of a loyal friend.
"The health benefits of dog ownership are a welcome and possibly substantial bonus," he says.