People who own dogs, particularly ones bred for hunting like terriers, retrievers, and scent hounds stand to have a lower risk of cardiovascular disease (CVD) compared to people who don’t own canines.
For people living alone, owning a dog can decrease their risk of death by 33% and their risk of cardiovascular related death by 36%, when compared to single individuals without a pet, according to the study. Chances of a heart attack were also found to be 11% lower.
Multi-person household owners also saw benefits, though to a lesser extent. Risk of death among these dog owners fell by 11% and their chances of cardiovascular death were 15% lower. But their risk of a heart attack was not reduced by owning a dog.
“A very interesting finding in our study was that dog ownership was especially prominent as a protective factor in persons living alone, which is a group reported previously to be at higher risk of cardiovascular disease and death than those living in a multi-person household,” said Mwenya Mubanga, an author on the study and PhD student at Uppsala University.
As a single dog owner, an individual is the sole person walking and interacting with their pet as opposed to married couples or households with children, which may contribute to greater protection from cardiovascular disease and death, said the study.
Owners of hunting breeds, including terriers, retrievers, and scent hounds, were most protected from cardiovascular disease and death. However, owning any dog will reduce an owners risk of death, just to different extents, said Tove Fall, senior author of the study and Associate Professor in Epidemiology at Uppsala University.
The study looked at over 3.4 million Swedish individuals between the ages of 40 and 80 who previously self-reported data to the Swedish Twin Register over a 12-year study period.
“We know that dog owners in general have a higher level of physical activity, which could be one explanation to the observed results,” said Fall. This includes taking the dog out for a walk in any weather condition.
The findings also suggest increased social well-being and immune system development as additional reasons why dog ownership offers protection against cardiovascular disease and death.
One factor behind this may be because dogs bring dirt into homes and they lick you, which could impact your microbiome — the bacteria that live in a person’s gut — and thus your health.
“It may encourage owners to improve their social life, and that in itself will reduce their stress level, which we know absolutely is a primary cause for cardiovascular disease and cardiac events,” said Dr. Rachel Bond, Associate Director of Women’s Heart Health at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City, who was not involved in the research.
More to be revealed
Fall believes that while their study provides strong evidence for the health benefits of dogs, their work is not done yet, since it does not answer why dogs achieve these results or why specific breeds seems to offer more protection.
Bond commented that owners of hunting breeds may be getting more exercise because these dogs are more active as opposed to small dogs who do not require as much exercise.
There are also other factors that still need to be considered, such as the owner’s personality and general physical health and activity.
“It is hard to say if there truly is a causal effect. This study in particular, excluded patients with heart disease in general, and we know that disabled people may be less likely to own a dog so that really raises the question if owning a dog lead to heart health or is it merely a marker for people who are more likely to have good heart health,” said Dr. Bond.
While Bond may not prescribe a dog as treatment for a patient, she said that she will not discourage owning or buying one, or expressing the benefits of owning one.
While Canada has no mandatory national dog registry for dog owners (although most dog owners must get a pet licence with their city), since 2001, Sweden has made it mandatory for people to register the dogs they own.
Today.com pointed out that a 2003 study from the American Heart Association concluded “pet ownership, particularly dog ownership, is probably associated with decreased CVD risk.”
Benefits for seniors
When it comes to the elderly, other studies have shown the health benefits of owning dogs — quite literally, having a dog can keep the doctor away.
Last year, the University of Missouri found that seniors who owned a dog saw increased social benefits, greater likelihood of physical activity and fewer trips to the doc.
Rebecca Johnson, a professor at the MU College of Veterinary Medicine told CTV that the study could encourage doctors to see that owning dogs “can be translated into reduced health care expenditures for the aging population.”
The Swedish study echoes a 2006 study which looked at British Columbians, and found that dog owners were more physically active than non-dog owners.
It further suggested that people who needed more physical activity should get dogs.
Dog-walking is also one of the ways to ensure that people reach the Canadian Society for Exercise Physiology’s recommendations that adults ages 18 to 64 should partake in at least 150 minutes of moderate physical activity each week.
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