Is Owning a Pet Good for You?

A friend who rescued a dog had a bumper sticker that said, “Who rescued who?” For a moment, set aside the truth that a lot of love passes between pets and their people and focus on what pets do for our physical wellbeing. Now there is evidence that dogs — because they need walking — improve their owners’ cardiovascular health. In fact, there is enough research that the American Heart Association published a scientific statement on the subject. Here are a few findings from some of the studies they reviewed:

  • Pet owners had lower systolic blood pressure, pulse pressure, and mean arterial pressure and a reduced risk of high blood pressure. However, after adjustment for age and other factors, pet ownership was no longer associated with a lower blood pressure or incidence of hypertension.
  • Ambulatory BP monitoring (blood pressure is measured as a person is moving about, doing their typical daily activities) two and five months after adoption demonstrated significantly lower systolic blood pressure in the dog-adoption group.
  • Compared with nonowners and new cat owners, new dog owners increased their recreational walking significantly more over a 10-month period.
  • On average, dog owners engaged in significantly more physical activity than nonowners (322.4 vs 267.1 minutes per week).
  • On average, dog owners walked significantly more than nonowners (150.3 vs 110.9 minutes per week).
  • After adjustment, dog owners were 57 percent more likely than nonowners to achieve the recommended level of physical activity.
  • Pet ownership appeared to make little or no difference in obesity, but there may be a difference for owners that walk their dogs.

There are probably a variety of reasons owning pets is associated with reducing your risk of cardiovascular disease. It may be that that people with dogs tend to exercise more. Pets may also play a role in providing social support to their owners, which could be an important factor in helping you stick with a new habit or adopting a new healthy behavior, such as walking. It’s unclear whether the results are because dogs are the pets most commonly owned and studied, if dogs are the pet most likely to increase their owner’s physical activity or because of additional beneficial effects of dog ownership.

The scientific statement concluded with these recommendations:

  • Pet ownership, particularly dog ownership, may be reasonable for reduction in cardiovascular disease risk.
  • Pet adoption, rescue or purchase should not be done for the primary purpose of reducing cardiovascular disease risk.

Whether or not you have a pet, regular aerobic physical activity can help you lead a healthier life. Your physical activity plan should include three to four sessions per week, lasting on average 40 minutes per session, and involving moderate- to vigorous-intensity physical activity. There are other important actions you can take to improve your heart health, visit Heart Insight’s Life’s Simple 7 department on the web.

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