“There is something about the outside of a dog that is good for the inside of a man.”
Apologies to Winston Churchill and all the horses and horse lovers out there for messing with a treasured quote, but the benefits of dog ownership are having their day in the sun right now.
In a scientific statement published on May 9, the American Heart Association (AHA) said what many owners are happy to hear: “Pet ownership, particularly dog ownership, may have some causal role in reducing CVD [cardiovascular disease] risk.”
The report involved a detailed look at 36 studies investigating the effects of pet ownership on factors associated with cardiovascular disease, including:
- systemic hypertension
- hyperlipidemia (abnormally high fat levels in the blood)
- physical activity
The statement is available in its entirety online (and has received a lot of attention in the media) so I won’t go into all the details, but I do want to touch on one aspect that I found to be especially interesting — the fact that most of the health benefits of pet ownership were laid at the feet of dogs. Granted, the majority of the studies looked at dog ownership, but some did involve cats and other pets.
It looks like the reason for this is simple — exercise. As anyone who has owned a dog that lives for its daily (or more frequent) walks can tell you, it is very hard to say “no” to those pleading eyes. They have gotten me out the door during all sorts of bad weather, when I’ve not been feeling well, when I’m busy or just plain lazy, and while residing in some sketchy neighborhoods.
This last point brings me to the fact that having a dog by your side can make a person feel a lot safer heading out the door, which is not a small impedance to exercise in many parts of the country. I once was walking my giant schnauzer named Boomer down the side of a rural road when a carload of young men pulled up beside me. I was greatly outnumbered, and there wasn’t another soul or house in sight. One of the men leered out the window and asked, “That dog bite?” To which I lied, “He sure does,” with more bravada than I actually felt. They roared off, and Boomer and I continued on our walk.
Now, don’t get me wrong. There are certainly benefits to pet ownership that have nothing to do with exercise. For example, a number of studies used in developing the AHA statement showed that dog and cat owners recovered from stress better than did people without pets. It simply looks like exercise is involved in reaping the maximal benefit of pet ownership.
So get out there with your dogs. Why waste the perfect opportunity to do your heart some good?
Dr. Jennifer Coates
Pet Ownership and Cardiovascular Risk: A Scientific Statement From the American Heart Association.
Levine GN, Allen K, Braun LT, Christian HE, Friedmann E, Taubert KA, Thomas SA, Wells DL, Lange RA; on behalf of the American Heart Association Council on Clinical Cardiology and Council on Cardiovascular and Stroke Nursing. Circulation. 2013 May 9. [Epub ahead of print]