Could your heart's best friend be a dog?

November 05, 2019 | by Edward-Elmhurst Health
Categories: Healthy Driven Hearts

They say that a dog is man’s best friend, but studies now are showing that your dog could also be heart-friendly.

A growing amount of evidence suggests an association between pet ownership and better heart health. Though a direct cause/effect relationship hasn’t been found, studies have shown a link between decreased cardiovascular disease and pet ownership.

The simple act of petting a dog creates a physiological response that prompts the release of serotonin and oxytocin, or the “feel good chemicals,” which help lower stress levels, decrease anxiety and lower blood pressure, says Megan Walsh, LCPC, a licensed clinical professional counselor with Linden Oaks Behavioral Health, who also had a therapy dog.

Both she and Elizabeth Hill, LCPC, supervisor of Linden Oaks’ rehab services department, have seen the calming effect a dog can have in therapy sessions, with a patient in crisis, or in their own daily lives.

“You instantly feel a sense of calm and even joy when you are connecting with an animal,” says Hill, also a licensed clinical professional counselor and dog owner.

In 2013, the American Heart Association (AHA) issued a scientific statement noting the potential benefits of pet ownership for heart health.

Though the AHA acknowledged that a causal relationship between pet ownership and better heart health hasn’t been found, they highlighted the many studies finding associated benefits, including:

  • Lower incidence of obesity. Studies found that companion animals provided social support, which the AHA noted was one of the more powerful predictors of adoption and maintenance of human behavior change, including weight loss. Pets, particularly dogs, also helped eliminate or reduce the perceived barriers to exercise (such as walking alone in a neighborhood).
  • Increased physical activity levels among dog owners. Studies have found that dog owners, in particular, report more exercise each week, likely due to the task of walking their dogs. In one study, dog owners engaged in 210 minutes of physical activity per week compared to the 198 minutes non-dog owners logged each week. In that study, dog owners walked an average of 120 minutes per week while those without a pet walked an average of 102 minutes per week. The AHA recommends at least 150 minutes of moderate physical activity each week.
  • Lower stress levels. Studies have found that pet owners, particularly cat or dog owners, had a better reaction to stress than those who did not. In one study, participants who had their pets present reacted less to stress and recovered the quickest from stress than those who did not have pets. Other studies have found that pet owners had lower resting heart rates than those who did not own a pet.
  • Greater survival rates for those with established cardiovascular disease. Studies of patients with established cardiovascular disease suggest that those who had pets, particularly dogs, had a greater survival rate than those who did not own pets.

The AHA recommends being active with your pet. Some suggestions include going for walks, spending time at the dog park, playing fetch or having fun at the beach.

Although studies have focused mostly on dogs for their potential to be beneficial to heart health, Walsh notes that any pet can help with overall health.

“It doesn’t have to be a cute and fluffy puppy or cat, just whatever someone feels a bond with,” Walsh says.

While there may be many associated benefits of pet ownership, the AHA warns against pet ownership simply for the health benefit. Walsh and Hill both suggest studying your options and making sure pet ownership is a right fit for you.

We live and breathe heart care 24/7. For us, this is personal.

Your heart is in expert hands when you choose Edward-Elmhurst Heart Hospital for your cardiovascular care. Learn more.

Learn more from Healthy Driven Chicago:

Five cardiac risk factors you need to know

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