HEART
May 23, 2013

What Pets Do for Us

The AHA finds that pets are good for your heart — physically and emotionally. But that's not reason enough to get one.

Any pet owner can tell you that pets offer comfort and affection. Pet owners look forward to a warm (and sometimes slobbery) greeting from their furry friend at the end of a long day.

In fact, your pet does more for you than you probably realize. Having a pet is also good for your health, according to a recent report by the American Heart Association.

Studies over the years have found that pet ownership tends to be linked to a reduced risk for cardiovascular disease (CVD). To investigate this relationship, the American Heart Association (AHA) set up a committee to review the results of the many studies about pets and health.

According to Dr. Glenn Levine, chair of the AHA review committee, their goal was to critically evaluate all the data and see how strong the statistical association between pet ownership and a decreased risk of CVD was.

The AHA report found that pets are beneficial to heart health, but that's not reason enough to head to the shelter or pet store.

“It may be simply that healthier people are the ones that have pets, not that having a pet actually leads to or causes reduction in cardiovascular risk, ” said Levine, a professor of medicine at Baylor College of Medicine and director of the cardiac care unit at the Michael E. DeBakey Medical Center.

The report found that dog ownership in particular, and pet ownership in general, appear to help reduce CVD risk. Dog owners are more likely to be physically active because they walk their pets. In a study of more than 5,200 adults, dog owners walked more and were more physically active than non-dog owners. Indeed over half of the owners reached the AHA-recommended level of physical activity.

The AHA analysis also found that pet ownership, perhaps because of the exercise involved, is mildly associated with lower blood pressure, decreased cholesterol levels and a lower incidence of obesity.

More importantly, pets can help blunt our bodies' reactions to stress. Cats and dogs made people less reactive to stress, while spouses sparked the highest reactivity.

Pets also increase our chances of recovering from heart problems. Dog and cat owners with CVD tend to live longer. Non-dog owners with CVD were four times more likely to die than those with canine companions.

Before you head out to the shelter or pet store, keep this mind: the AHA report found that pets are beneficial to heart health, but that's not reason enough to get a pet. As Levine told TheDoctor, “The primary reason to adopt or rescue a pet should be to give the pet a loving home and to derive enjoyment from the relationship between owner and pet, and not just to decrease CVD risk.”

The American Heart Association's statement is published online in the journal, Circulation.

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