If you’ve been waiting for a sign to get a dog, then take this as your sign. Plus, there are some studies that have found having a dog could actually be good for your health.
Dr. Caroline Kramer is a Mount Sinai endocrinologist, as well as the lead author of a new systematic review that spans nearly 70 years of global research, which, on Tuesday, has been published in “Circulation” – an American Heart Association journal.
Dr. Kramer has said, “Our analysis found having a dog is actually protective against dying of any cause.”
The review of the health benefits surrounding man’s best friend has been an extensive analysis of research, which involves nearly 4 million people across the United States, Canada, Scandinavia, New Zealand, Australia, and the United Kingdom.
Dr. Kramer, who is an assistant professor at the University of Toronto’s division of endocrinology and metabolism, said, “Dog ownership was associated with a 24% reduction in all-cause mortality.”
The meta-analysis found there are even bigger benefits for those people who have already suffered a heart attack or stroke.
“For those people, having a dog was even more beneficial. They had a 31% reduced risk of dying from cardiovascular disease,” Dr. Kramer said.
A separate study involving more than 336,000 Swedish men and women – which was also published on Tuesday inside the “Circulation” journal – found that dog owners faced better prognoses following a major cardiovascular event such as heart attack or stroke.
Globally, both heart attacks and stroke are the leading causes of death.
“The most interesting part of this study was that people who lived alone actually seem to get the greatest benefit in both the heart attack group and the stroke group,” said dog owner Dr. Martha Gulati, who is also the editor-in-chief of CardioSmart.org – the patient education platform of the American College of Cardiology.
Dr. Gulati, who was not involved in either study, stated, “People who lived with a dog actually had less mortality than people living alone who didn’t have a dog.”
Heart attack survivors who live alone but own dogs were found to have 33% of a lower death risk as compared to those who didn’t own a dog. The risk was a 27% reduced death risk for stroke survivors living alone.
The author of the study, Tove Fall, an associate professor of epidemiology at Uppsala University in Sweden, stated, “We know that loneliness and social isolation are strong risk factors for premature death and our hypothesis was that the company of a pet can alleviate that. Single owners have to do all the dog walks and we know that physical activity is important in rehabilitation after myocardial infarction or stroke.”
Both of the published studies were observational, which means that the researchers cannot prove a direct cause between dog ownership and increased life expectancy or the better health outcomes following a heart attack and stroke – the only thing that could directly prove that would be a randomized clinical trial.
“Is it the dog or is it the behaviors? Is it because you’re exercising or is it because there is a difference in the type of person who would choose to have a dog versus somebody who would not? Are they healthier or wealthier? We don’t know those things,” Gulati asked the questions.
The American Heart Association also points to studies that have found that pet owners who walk their dogs got up to 30 minutes more exercise a day than non-walkers.
“There are studies suggesting that individuals who have dogs have a better cholesterol profile and lower blood pressure,” said Dr. Kramer, who is also a dog owner.
“One study, my favorite, found just the effect of petting a dog can reduce your blood pressure as much as a medication,” Dr. Kramer added.
There are other studies that have suggested reduced anxiety and depression since dogs provide companionship and affection. Both are especially important following any major illness, such as a heart attack or stroke.
“We know that if you have depression after a heart attack, you’re more likely to have a poor outcome,” Gulati said – which can account for one of the reasons why so many hospitals have begun implementing therapy dogs for cardiac patients.
In fact, there are plenty of cardiologists who believe in the benefits of owning a dog – some so much so, that they will actually prescribe their patients to get a dog, of course, if they believe that the person can appropriately care for a dog.
My patient’s dog died a few months ago and he stopped walking. He hasn’t gotten a new dog because his wife was worried that she would be left alone to take care of it. I wrote this Rx and told him to tell his wife that it’s my job to keep him around #DogRx #ExerciseIsMedicine pic.twitter.com/yrJXPygzXM
— William Suh, MD (@willsuh76) October 29, 2018
“I know a lot of my patients often say to me after they have a heart attack or stroke, can I even take care of a dog? They worry because they don’t want to leave the dog alone if something happens to them,” Gulati said.
“But if possible, I always encourage them to get a dog,” she added, “perhaps an older dog who needs to be rescued and not a puppy that will be harder to manage.”
“While these non-randomized studies cannot ‘prove’ that adopting or owning a dog directly leads to reduced mortality, these robust findings are certainly at least suggestive of this,” stated Dr. Glenn Levine, who serves as chair of the writing group of the American Heart Association’s scientific statement on pet ownership.
However, the AHA has also stated that pet ownership is a commitment that encompasses certain financial costs and responsibilities, so “the primary purpose of adopting, rescuing, or purchasing a pet” shouldn’t be reducing cardiovascular risk.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, studies show dogs decrease stress levels and help facilitate relaxation at nearly all stages of our lives.
“They influence social, emotional and cognitive development in children, promote an active lifestyle, and have even been able to detect oncoming epileptic seizures or the presence of certain cancers,” the CDC said.
So this could mean that anyone of any age could benefit from owning a dog, right?
“The overall understanding of cardiovascular health is that the earlier that we implement healthier behaviors, the better,” Dr. Kramer said. “So like walking, not smoking. And I think that maybe dog ownership is part of that.”
So there you have it – observations that show dogs are a great addition to our health.