by: Sharon Elber
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, heart disease is the leading cause of death for both women and men in the United States. It accounts for as many as 1 in 4 deaths in America each year. Although genetics can certainly play a role in the risk factors for cardiovascular disease, lifestyle factors such as diet and exercise play a major role in heart health.
Another factor that many people may already be taking advantage of without even knowing it is dog ownership. It turns out that our canine companions don’t just bring joy and purpose to our lives, they may also be contributing to a healthy heart. Let’s take a closer look at the science behind this claim:
The most direct link between dogs and heart health is the immediate effect that spending time with them has on our blood pressure. Known as the “pet effect,” many studies have documented decreased blood pressure and heart rates from petting dogs in a variety of settings, across all age groups, and in both subjects with healthy hearts and those with high blood pressure.
Pet ownership in general is also associated with better heart health indicators. Research on why this is so points to the improved emotional state that dogs can offer us, which in turn promotes lower blood pressure and heart rates.
When you come home from work after a rough day, and your trusty companion is there to give you unconditional love, the pressures of the day can melt away. This age old human/animal bond may have more to offer than just a “feel good” benefit. It can have a positive impact on our physical health as well.
Another indicator of our canine companion’s positive effect on heart health is the role they play in reducing stress. Studies that look at the hormones associated with stressed and relaxed states demonstrate the positive effect dog’s can have on our stress levels.
One study showed that participants tested for a bump in oxytocin, a peptide hormone associated with social bonding, after spending time with familiar dogs. The effect in this study showed a more pronounced effect for female participants in the study, but other studies have shown similar results in men as well. Additional studies have also demonstrated a similar effect with decreased levels of cortisol, a stress hormone.
The stress-relieving benefits of the canine/human bond appear to go both ways. One study found a parallel hormonal reaction with both oxytocin and cortisol in dogs after spending quality time with their owners.
These health benefits are one of the reasons that therapy dogs have been a welcome addition to many senior facilities and rehab clinics. In addition, more and more companies are offering dog-friendly workplaces as human resources professionals are becoming more aware of the positive effects that dogs can have on our stress levels.
There has been a great deal of research that demonstrates that dogs can promote a more active lifestyle for many pet owners. There are several reasons for this fitness benefit.
First, dogs have exercise needs of their own. It’s one thing to skip out on your own workout, but letting down a hopeful dog by skipping the daily walk isn’t really an option. For many pet owners, walking your dog adds a significant amount of daily physical activity which can in turn promote heart health. One study showed that dog owners walked an average of 300 minutes per week, compared to the non-dog owning participants who averaged only 168 minutes.
Sometimes dogs also help their owners find new activities to get more enjoyment from the great outdoors. A dog can be a pathway to taking up hiking, swimming, or biking. Owners of active breeds such as Labradors and Border Collies often pursue dog-related activities such as flyball, agility, or dock diving to keep their pooches engaged and balanced. All of these doggie sports require getting off the couch and adding significant physical activity to your life with an emphasis on fun!
Dog ownership may offer a significant advantage to senior populations as well. Several studies have demonstrated that seniors who have dogs are more likely to engage in regular walking, and those that do experience increased mobility as a result.
Taken as a whole, likely from their contributions to heart rate, hormonal levels, and additional physical activity, dogs decrease several risk factors related to heart disease.
For example, dog ownership is linked to lower levels of obesity, a leading cause for cardiovascular disease. This has led some researchers to hypothesize that dog ownership may be a novel approach to addressing the crisis of obesity in children, since dogs have been shown to have a sharp positive influence on motivating kids to engage in more physical exercise.
Another way canines can improve heart health is their impact on rehabilitation after cardiovascular events such as strokes, heart attacks, or cardiovascular surgeries. By providing “psychosocial” support, dog ownership and even therapy dogs can help patients stay motivated to complete a cardiac rehabilitation program.
The health benefits of dog ownership go beyond heart health as well. Research has shown that they also contribute to our mental health by decreasing feelings of depression, social isolation, and anxiety. Specific studies on senior populations show that canines can alleviate some of the symptoms from dementia and promote more active participation in recovery from surgeries. Dogs have also been shown to help with pain management for those recovering from major surgery and injury.
Dogs don’t just improve our lives on the individual level. Studies have demonstrated that dog friendly neighborhoods report higher levels of social engagement and a stronger sense of community. And, dog ownership may even benefit society as a whole by decreasing national healthcare expenditures.
Dogs not only improve our heart health, they improve our quality of life and impact our society in broader ways. If you're looking to thank your pet for all of the ways they benefit your life, check out our line of therapeutic dog massagers to help give them a little TLC.
Sharon Elber is a professional writer & has also worked as a professional dog trainer for over 10 years, she received her M.S. in Science & Technology Studies from Virginia Tech.