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How pets may lower your risk of heart disease

Teresa Tanoos's picture
Pets may reduce risk of heart disease

There’s a new way to fight heart disease: Just get a pet! New evidence shows that having a pet may lower your risk of heart disease. So says an official statement from the American Heart Association, which was published online in its journal Circulation.

"Pet ownership, particularly dog ownership, is probably associated with a decreased risk of heart disease," said Glenn N. Levine, M.D., of Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, who led the committee that wrote the statement. “In no way are we discounting or dissing cats or other pets,” Levine added hastily.

Levine and his committee went through all the evidence linking pet ownership with a lower risk of heart disease, and found plenty of supporting research as follows:

• Dog owners exercise more than people who don’t have dogs and they’re 54 percent more likely to get recommended levels of daily exercise.

• Stroking a pet can lower your blood pressure. Several studies show pet owners in general have lower blood pressure than people without pets.

• Pet owners can handle stress better – even when their pets aren’t around.

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While pet ownership is probably associated with a reduction in heart disease risk factors and increased survival among patients, the studies aren't definitive and do not necessarily prove that owning a pet directly results in reducing heart disease risk.

"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," Levine said.
Nevertheless, owning a dog in particular may help reduce cardiovascular risk because dog owners tend to be more physically active as a result of walking the pets.

In a study of more than 5,200 adults, dog owners engaged in more walking and physical activity than non-dog owners, and were 54 percent more likely to get the recommended level of physical activity.

As for the stress-reducing qualities a pet can have, Levine, who is a dog owner himself puts it simply: “Perhaps when owns a pet one tends to be happier,” he said. Pet owners might be more likely to take their medications and eat healthier meals, he said.

On the other hand, Levine points out that the AHA hasn’t yet gone so far as to recommend adopting pets just to lower the risk of heart disease.

“We did not want people to see this article and just go out and adopt or rescue or buy a dog …while they continue to just sit on the couch and smoke cigarettes,” Levine said. “The primary reason to adopt a pet would be to give the pet a loving home and to derive a measure of enjoyment from taking care of a pet,” he added.

"In essence, data suggest that there probably is an association between pet ownership and decreased cardiovascular risk," Levine said. "What's less clear is whether the act of adopting or acquiring a pet could lead to a reduction in cardiovascular risk in those with pre-existing disease. Further research, including better quality studies, is needed to more definitively answer this question."

SOURCE: Pet Ownership and Cardiovascular Risk: A Scientific Statement From the American Heart Association. Circulation, published May 9, 2013 (DOI:10.1161/CIR.0b013e31829201e1)