How Pets Can Improve Our Heart Health

Steven Feldman, President at HABRI
By Steven Feldman, President at HABRI. Reviewed by Veronica Higgs, DVM on Feb. 8, 2024
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In This Article

Pets and Heart Health

Dogs and cats are our constant companions, providing us with unconditional love, comfort, and support day in and day out.

We know how they make us feel emotionally, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise to learn that scientific studies have shown that our pets can benefit both our mental and physical well-being. 

Beyond filling our emotional heart with joy and laughter, pets have a documented, positive impact on our physical, cardiac, and cardiovascular health.

Pets and Heart Health

Research shows a significant connection between pets and heart health. Studies have also shown that having a pet, particularly a dog or cat, can lead to reduced stress through various mechanisms.

The companionship and unconditional love provided by pets create a sense of emotional support, which in turn can alleviate stress. Interacting with pets has been linked to increased production of oxytocin, a hormone that promotes bonding and reduces stress.

Moreover, the physical activity involved in caring for a pet, such as walking a dog or engaging in play, can contribute to the release of endorphins, often called “feel-good” hormones. Together these factors result in lower blood pressure and decreased levels of cholesterol, contributing to a healthier heart. 

By taking the right care of our dogs and cats, we actively contribute to their well-being and deepen the human-animal bond.

The American Heart Association (AHA) has shared research on how pets positively impact overall heart health, as highlighted in their scientific statement. This statement critically evaluates data regarding the influence of pet parenthood on the presence and reduction of cardiovascular disease (CVD) risk factors and heart disease.

The AHA’s conclusion is that having a pet, particularly a dog, is likely associated with a reduced risk of cardiovascular disease.

Written by a committee of experts and approved by the AHA Science Advisory and Coordinating Committee, this published statement serves as an independent and authoritative confirmation that being a pet parent supports heart health.

How Pets Help Heart Health

How do pets specifically offer these heart-healthy benefits?

Positive interactions between pet parents and their pets seem to trigger physiological changes in both humans and animals. Beyond affecting blood pressure and heart rate, engaging with pets has been shown to influence hormones correlated with well-being, including cortisol, oxytocin, β-endorphin, prolactin, phenylacetic acid, and dopamine.

The oxytocin system is directly connected to many of the observed psychological effects of human-animal interaction (HAI), such as engaging with pets. Oxytocin (OT), often referred to as the “bonding hormone,” is a neuropeptide known to promote maternal care in mammals. When released, oxytocin causes physiological changes that benefit the heart, including slowing heart rate and breathing, regulating blood pressure, inhibiting stress hormones, and creating a sense of calm, comfort, and focus.

Studies have shown that interacting with our pet dog leads to an increase in oxytocin levels in our brain, which in turn enhances cardiovascular well-being.

Pets and Physical Health

Our pets also serve as daily motivators, encouraging us to practice healthy habits that significantly impact heart health. Whether it’s a brisk walk around the neighborhood, a lively game of fetch, or a leisurely hike in the great outdoors, the companionship of a dog or an active cat inspires us to stay active.

Having a dog is associated with more recreational walking and a greater likelihood of meeting physical activity recommendations. According to one study, the odds of dog parents meeting current physical activity guidelines of 150 minutes per week were four times greater than for non-dog parents.

Dog walking has also been linked to a reduced rate of obesity. A study of almost 2,200 subjects found significantly fewer obese dog walkers compared to individuals without pets or pet parents who chose not to walk their dogs.

In the realm of healthy aging, cat parenthood has been linked to maintaining physical function. Research on older adults found that while leisure-time physical activity generally declines with age, the decline is slower among dog and cat parents in overall physical performance, gait speed, and physical well-being.

Researchers speculate that the responsibility of caring for an animal, whether a dog or a cat, becomes a beneficial source of regular physical activity as we age.

Pets and Cardiovascular Disease

While preventing disease through healthy behaviors is key to a heart-healthy life, research has also found a connection between pet parenthood and improved outcomes, including healing and recovery, following a cardiovascular event such as a heart attack or stroke.

In a nationwide study of over 300,000 Swedish patients who suffered a stroke or heart attack, those who were dog pet parents were more likely to survive than those who were not dog parents. 

The positive impact of pets extends beyond dogs. Cat pet parents also exhibit a decreased risk of death due to heart attacks, strokes, and other cardiovascular diseases. While scientists don’t yet have a definitive answer as to the connection, they speculate that the consistent presence of cats, providing affection and relaxation, could contribute to increased survival rates and improved outcomes.

Positive interactions between pet parents and their pets seem to trigger physiological changes in both humans and animals.

The underlying theory here is that social support shields humans from the impact of stressful events, promoting overall well-being. Pets, considered significant sources of social support, can instill a sense of purpose and meaning in pet parents, explaining some of their beneficial effects.

Similarly, pet parents have been found to experience less stress and to recover more swiftly from stressful events in the presence of their pets. This suggests a buffering effect—a process in which a resource (the pet) diminishes the impact of life stress on psychological well-being, which may also contribute to enhanced recovery.

But What If I Can’t Have a Pet at Home?

Not everyone can be a pet parent for various reasons, but there are other wonderful ways to experience the benefits of the human-animal bond. Many organizations have found creative ways to bring the joy of dogs to people who are unable to have a pet of their own, such as with therapy dogs.

Research has shown that interacting with therapy animals can elicit the same physiological and social responses as interacting with pets—increasing oxytocin, endorphins, and serotonin, neurochemicals that are associated with positive emotions, bonding, and stress reduction.

Animal-assisted therapy can reduce stress and pain, boost mood, heighten the sense of well-being in hospital patients, increase social interaction and well-being for older adults in nursing homes, and reduce stress for students in educational settings, including college campuses.  

If you are unable to have your own dog or cat at home, consider volunteering at your local animal shelter. Shelters always need volunteers to help with activities such as dog walking, puppy socialization, and dedicated cat interaction.

Humans Help a Pet’s Health, Too

Studies have shown that petting a dog not only releases stress-busting hormones in humans but also increases these beneficial hormones in dogs. Engaging in shared activities with our companion animals not only benefits our cardiovascular health but also strengthens the human-animal bond, boosting the health of our pets too.

Similar to humans, dogs and cats need regular exercise, mental stimulation, and veterinary checkups to stay healthy and happy. Regular walking, playtime, and the right diet also help our pets maintain a healthy weight.

By taking the right care of our dogs and cats, we actively contribute to their well-being and deepen the human-animal bond. Remember, for a heart-healthy life, the better we take care of our pets, the better they’ll take care of our hearts, in more ways than one.

References

Miller C, et al. An examination of changes in oxytocin levels in men and women before and after interaction with a bonded dog. Anthrozoös. 2009;22(1):31–42.

Odendaal J. Animal-assisted therapy—magic or medicine? Journal of Psychosomatic Research. 2000;49(4):275–280.

Marshall-Pescini S, et al. The role of oxytocin in the dog–owner relationship. Animals,2019;9(10):792.

Odendaal J, Meintjes R. Neurophysiological correlates of affiliative behaviour between humans and dogs. The Veterinary Journal. 2003;165(3):296–301.

Brooks H. Ontological security and connectivity provided by pets: a study in the self-management of the everyday lives of people diagnosed with a long-term mental health condition. BMC Psychiatry. 2016;16(1):409.

Barker S, et al. The Relationship between Pet Ownership, Social Support, and Internalizing Symptoms in Students from the First to Fourth Year of College. Applied Developmental Science. 2018;24(3):279–293.

Reeves M, et al. The impact of dog walking on leisure-time physical activity: results from a population-based survey of Michigan adults. Journal of Physical Activity and Health. 2011;8(3):436–444.


Steven Feldman, President at HABRI

WRITTEN BY

Steven Feldman, President at HABRI

PetMD Partner

Steven Feldman is the President of the Human-Animal Bond Research Institute (HABRI). His mission is to advance the science that demonstrates the positive roles that pets and other animals play in the integrated health of individuals, families and communities.Steven is an experienced public affairs advocate who has worked in the areas of wildlife conservation, animal welfare, healthcare and education. Prior to joining HABRI, Steve served as senior vice president for external affairs for the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. He also worked at Powell Tate, a leading public affairs firm, and as...


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