Health

Pets might lower your heart disease risk, experts say

May 9, 2013 at 5:17 PM ET

They’re happy to see you when you get home, love you unconditionally and make you get up from the couch to take a walk. And there’s a growing body of evidence that pets can lower your risk of heart disease, too, the American Heart Association says.

Woman walking a dog
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Dog owners exercise more than people who don't have dogs.

The group says there’s now enough evidence that pets are heart-healthy to justify an official statement summing up the evidence.

“The most data and the best data were on dog ownership,” said Dr. Glenn Levine 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.

The committee went through all the evidence linking pet ownership with lowered risk of heart disease. There’s plenty of it:

  • 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.

Only one study’s been done to the “gold standard" of scientific rigor – a so-called randomized study. In that one, researchers found a group of 30 people with borderline high blood pressure who were about to adopt dogs from a shelter, and persuaded half of them to hold off.

Those allowed to adopt dogs right away had lower blood pressure two and five months later than those who agreed to wait. "Interestingly, at later follow-up, after all study participants had adopted dogs, systolic blood pressure was found to be similarly lowered in the deferred-adoption group as well," the committee wrote in the report.

More study is needed to show precisely why pets lower blood pressure and improve the ability to handle heart-harming stress hormones, such as cortisol. It’s also possible, says Levine, that other factors are involved. Any pet owner can testify that animals drag in a lot of dirt -- and touching and breathing in dirt, pollen and other allergens could reduce levels of a compound called C-reactive protein, which rises when there is inflammation in the body and is strongly linked to heart disease.

Or, it could be something simple. “Perhaps when owns a pet one tends to be happier,” said Levine, himself a dog owner. Pet owners might be more likely to take their medications and eat healthier meals, he said.

Despite the evidence, the group doesn’t yet recommend that people adopt pets simply to lower their 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.”

For more about dogs, go to TODAY Pets

And although dog owners are far more likely to get out and exercise with their pets than, say, a snake owner, Levine said any pet can be helpful. “Several studies demonstrated beneficial effects on these parameters associated with goat, fish, chimpanzee, and snake ownership,’ the statement reads.

“One experiment even demonstrated a benefit on cardiovascular stress responses with ‘virtual’ animals, which were presented in the form of video recordings.”

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