By Dr. Becker
In a 12-page scientific statement issued last month by the American Heart Association (AHA), the organization suggests that pet ownership might help reduce the risk of heart disease.
According to the New York Times:
The unusual message was contained in a scientific statement published on Thursday by the American Heart Association, which convened a panel of experts to review years of data on the cardiovascular benefits of owning a pet. The group concluded that owning a dog, in particular, was “probably associated” with a reduced risk of heart disease.
The NY Times article also points out that the AHA publishes about three scientific statements a month, typically of a more technical nature. The association decided to make a statement on pets and heart disease in response to an increasing number of news stories and scientific studies linking pet ownership to improved health. The statement was published online on May 9, 2013 in the AHA journal Circulation.
Dr. Glenn Levine, a professor at the Baylor College of Medicine and head of the committee that wrote the statement said, “We didn’t want to make this too strong of a statement. But there are plausible psychological, sociological and physiological reasons to believe that pet ownership might actually have a causal role in decreasing cardiovascular risk.”
Research Suggests Certain Health Benefits of Pet Ownership
According to Dr. Levine, existing research shows that:
Dr. Levine and his colleagues emphasize that existing studies do not necessarily prove pet ownership reduces heart disease risk. Rather, the data supports a possible association between the two, especially where the pet is a dog.
- Pet ownership is probably associated with a reduction in heart disease risk factors and increased survival among patients.
- Dog ownership in particular may help reduce cardiovascular risk, because people with dogs may engage in morephysical activity (for example, walking their pet).
- Having pets in the family may be associated with lower blood pressure and cholesterol levels, and a lower incidence of obesity.
- Pets can have a positive effect on the body’s reactions to stress.
Studies Show Positive Effect of Dog Ownership on High Blood Pressure
Two randomized trials were mentioned in the researchers’ evaluation. One of the two studies involved 30 patients with borderline hypertension who either adopted a dog from a shelter, or put off adoption.
In follow-ups at two and five months, those who went ahead with the adoption had significantly lower systolic blood pressure than the other group. When all 30 had adopted a dog, the drop in blood pressure was similar for both groups. (Abstract presented at 22nd Annual Scientific Sessions of the Society of Behavioral Medicine; March 24, 2001; Seattle, WA.)
The second study looked at 48 hypertensive stockbrokers who adopted a dog, a cat, or no pet. After six months, pet owners in the group demonstrated fewer increases in blood pressure, heart rate and plasma renin activity during periods of mental stress. (Hypertension 2001; 38: 815-820).
Pet ownership also seems to produce small reductions in cholesterol levels in people with hyperlipidemia.
With All That Said, Your Health Shouldn’t Be the Motive for Adopting a Pet
For people without heart problems, owning a pet doesn’t seem to have an impact on survival. But for those with confirmed heart disease, owning a dog is strongly associated with decreased mortality. In fact, for heart patients without a dog, mortality is four times greater.
Dr. Levine and his colleagues want to underscore that they are not recommending people adopt a pet for any reason other than to give it a good home. “If someone adopts a pet, but still sits on the couch and smokes and eats whatever they want and doesn’t control their blood pressure,” he said, “that’s not a prudent strategy to decrease their cardiovascular risk.”
Not to mention it’s a far from ideal situation for the pet.