Pets Can Be Good for Your Heart, and Studies Appear To Prove It

Photo by Eric Ward on Unsplash

If you have a pet, you already know the joy and love they can bring to your life. Now science is confirming just how good they really are for you — both mentally and physically. 

One theory is that pets boost our oxytocin levels. Also known as the "cuddle chemical," oxytocin enhances social skills, decreases blood pressure and heart rate, boosts immune function, and raises tolerance for pain. It also lowers stress, anger, and depression. 

Therefore, it comes as no surprise that having a dog or cat (or another beloved pet) appears to offers all these same benefits and more. There are several impressive ways that pets can make you healthier and happier.

1. Pets can help you live longer and be healthier  

Having a dog is associated with a lower risk of death from cardiovascular disease or other causes, according to a study that followed 3.4 million people in Sweden. Researchers studied men and women between the ages of 40 and 80 and followed their health records (and whether they owned a dog) for about a dozen years. The study found that for people who lived alone, owning a dog can provide a form of social support and increase physical activity, which can decrease their risk of death by 33% and their risk of cardiovascular-related death by 36%, compared to single people without a pet. Chances of having a heart attack were also 11% lower. A 2019 review of nearly 70 years of research found that dog ownership lowers your risk of dying from any cause by 24%. For people who've already suffered an acute coronary event, their risk drops 65% when they have a dog. The results were published in Circulation, a journal of the American Heart Association. 

Pets strengthen our hearts, calm our nerves, and a whole lot more. 

2. Pets can help lessen allergies and boost your immune system

One of your immune system's jobs is to identify potentially harmful substances and unleash antibodies to ward off the threat. But sometimes it overreacts and misidentifies harmless things as dangerous, causing an allergic reaction. Think red eyes, itchy skin, runny nose, and wheezing. 

You'd think that having pets might trigger allergies by kicking up sneeze-and-wheeze-inducing dander and fur. But it turns out that living with a dog or cat during the first year of life not only cuts your chances of having pet allergies in childhood and later on but also lowers your risk of asthma. A study published in the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology found that newborns who live with cats have a lower risk of childhood asthma, pneumonia, and bronchiolitis. 

Living with a pet as a child also revs up your immune system. In fact, just a brief pet encounter can invigorate your disease-defense system. In one study, petting a dog for only 18 minutes significantly raised secretory immunoglobulin A (IgA) levels in college students' saliva, a sign of robust immune function. 

There's even some new research that suggests links between the microbes found in animals and the beneficial ones that live in our digestive tract. “Exposure to animal bacteria may trigger bacteria in our gut to change how they metabolize the neurotransmitters that have an impact on mood and other mental functions,” Jack Gilbert, the director of the Microbiome Center at the University of Chicago, told The New York Times. Gilbert is co-author of a study published in The New England Journal of Medicine that found Amish children have lower rates of asthma because they grow up with livestock and the bacteria they host. Gilbert cautions that studies about how pet microbes might affect human gut bacteria are still in their early stages. 

3. Pets can increase your activity and fitness levels 

This one applies more to dog owners. If you like walking with your favorite canine, chances are you're fitter and trimmer than your non-dog-walking counterparts and come closer to meeting recommended physical activity levels. One National Institutes of Health-funded study of more than 2,000 adults found that regular dog walkers got more exercise and were less likely to be obese than those who didn't walk a dog. In another study, older dog walkers (ages 71-82) walked faster and longer than non-pooch-walkers, plus they were more mobile at home. 

Dog owners who take their canine companions on walks tend to be trimmer and fitter than their fellow dog-less peers. 

4. Pets can be great stress-relievers 

When stress comes your way, your body goes into fight-or-flight mode, releasing hormones like cortisol to crank out more energy-boosting blood sugar and epinephrine to get your heart and blood pumping. All well and good for our ancestors who needed quick bursts of speed to dodge predatory saber-toothed tigers and stampeding mastodons. But when we live in a constant state of fight-or-flight from ongoing stress at work and the frenetic pace of modern life, these physical changes take their toll on our bodies, including raising our risk of heart disease and other dangerous conditions. Contact with pets seems to counteract this stress response by lowering stress hormones and heart rate. They also lower anxiety and fear levels (psychological responses to stress) and elevate feelings of calmness. Studies have found that dogs can help ease stress and loneliness for seniors, as well as help calm pre-exam stress for college studentsOne study found that just 10 minutes of petting a dog or cat can lower cortisol levels in college students. 

5. And, pets can increase your heart's health 

Pets shower us with unconditional love, which has a large impact on our hearts, our own love center. It turns out that time spent with your critter is actually linked to better cardiovascular health, possibly due to the stress-alleviating effect mentioned above. Studies show that dog owners have a lower risk of heart disease, including lower blood pressure and cholesterol. There's also evidence that suggests dog owners have a lowered risk of death after being hospitalized due to a major cardiovascular event. And don't worry, cat owners — feline affection confers a similar effect. One 2009 study found that former cat owners were about 40% less likely to suffer a heart attack. Another study that followed more than 1,700 people in the Czech Republic found that dog owners are more likely to have better overall heart health. Pet owners in the study reported more physical activity, better diet, and ideal blood sugar levels, but dog owners showed the greatest benefits from having a pet. 

Dr. Mark L. Meyer Dr. Meyer graduated from Haverford College with a Bachelor of Science, High Honors, in cellular and molecular biology, Phi Beta Kappa, Magna Cum Laude. He attended the Yale University School of Medicine, where he also completed a categorical residency in Internal Medicine, served for one year as an Emergency Department attending physician, and held the title of Clinical Instructor in the Department of Surgery. During this time, Dr. Meyer obtained a J.D. from the Yale Law School, concentrating on medical ethics, scientific research law, and FDA law. He then completed a fellowship in Cardiovascular Diseases at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania, where he obtained Level 3 Nuclear Cardiology training.

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