Study: Owning a pet, especially a dog, is good for your heart health

Simple Health

Austin (KXAN) — New research from the Mayo Clinic indicates that owning a pet, particularly a dog,  can leave humans with healthier hearts. The study looked at the link between owning a pet, heart disease risk factors and heart health.

These findings came from the first analysis of data from the Kardiozive Brno 2030, described as the “only population-based cardiovascular health prevention project in Central and Eastern Europe.” The results are published in Mayo Clinic Proceedings: Innovations, Quality & Outcomes.

For this study, researchers initially looked at more than 2,000 people in Brno, Czech Republic from January 2013 through December 2014. The researchers have follow-up interviews scheduled with these people every five years until 2030. 

For the 2019 check-in, the study focused on 1,769 people who had no history of heart disease and scored them based on ideal behaviors and factors outlined by the American Heart Association, which include:  body mass index, diet, physical activity, smoking status, blood pressure, blood glucose level and total cholesterol.

“In general, people who owned any pet were more likely to report more physical activity, better diet and blood sugar at ideal level,” says Andrea Maugeri, Ph.D., a researcher with the International Clinical Research Center at St. Anne’s University Hospital in Brno and the University of Catania in Catania, Italy. “The greatest benefits from having a pet were for those who owned a dog, independent of their age, sex and education level.”

Having a dog may encourage people to go out, move around and play with their dog regularly, explained Francisco Lopez-Jimenez, M.D., a senior investigator in this study and the chair of the Division of Preventive Cardiology at Mayo Clinic in Rochester. Lopez-Jimenez added that having a dog has been linked to better mental health in other studies and less perception of social isolation, which are both risk factors for heart attacks.

The American Heart Association says that owning a pet — in particular a dog — is associated with lower heart disease risk.

Dr. Vivek Goswami, a cardiologist at Austin Heart who practices at Heart Hospital of Austin, said that in some ways, these findings from the Mayo Clinic surprise him, and in some ways the results line up with what we already know about heart health.

“We’ve known historically that owning pets, and especially owning dogs, can have a lot of, not only physical benefits but psychosocial benefits,” Goswami said. “There’s less stress, less depression, things that can engage people socially that can correlate to heart health, those things have been shown to be very favorable when it comes to heart health.”

It made sense to him that the study found that dog owners were shown to have an increase in physical activity.

“But some of the more surprising things were dog owners were much more likely to have better diets than individuals that didn’t have dogs,” he said.

Goswami advises taking these results with a grain of salt, because it’s not clear if the dogs are making people healthier or if healthier people just tend to own dogs.

“Probably one of the most important things we can do statistically is taking care of our health, and before everyone runs out to an animal shelter and adopts a dog, really we can’t forget that it’s extremely high yield to be accountable for our health and make sure that we’re exercising on a regular basis,” he said.

When it comes to protecting your heart health, Goswami noted, the stakes are high. Heart disease is the leading cause of death in the U.S. for both men and women.

Goswami pointed out that the American Heart Association recommends 150 minutes per week of moderate-intensity aerobic activity per week, which is out of the norm of what many Americans are used to.

“We know how to treat and we know how to prevent heart disease,” he emphasized. “Four out of five cases of the leading cause of death in the United States could be prevented with good decision making, risk factor modification and by getting screened so it’s not like this is a big medical mystery for us, we’re just not doing in general what we should be doing.”

Devonya Adams holds up her dog “Cookie” who she adopted in November of 2018. (KXAN Photo/ Alyssa Goard).

For Goswami, factors like regular exercise and a good diet are of top importance when it comes to stopping heart disease. He sees factors like owning a dog as something with benefits that should not be ignored but shouldn’t be prioritized over watching traditional heart health risk factors.

Central Texas nonprofit Family Eldercare says their clients have been reaping the health benefits of dog ownership. In fact, family eldercare says that one-third of their clients have pets.

“Family Eldercare promotes health, and wellness and stability, and pets are helping us to do that,” explained Virginia Larson with Family Eldercare.

50-year-old Devonya Adams, who is a family eldercare client, explained that her dog “Cookie” has made a significant difference in her health. Adams adopted Cookie in November of 2018.

“When I’m disturbed or just not having a good day or something like that, looking at her just makes me smile,” Adams said. “She’ll look so cute or she’ll do something that takes my mind off of whatever’s wrong and puts it on her and I pet her and everything’s OK.”

Plus, she said, Cookie gets her outdoors and walking more often. Having a dog gives Adams another reason to work to improve her health.

“I’ve been watching what I eat more and what I drink — you know no sugary drinks because I want to be around to see my kids and grandkids grow up, maybe great grand (kids), and I want to be around for Cookie,” she said.

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