Owning a Dog Could Boost Heart Health, Say Scientists

Dog owners are more likely to have better heart health, scientists have found in a study.

The research published in the journal Mayo Clinic Proceedings involved 1,769 people aged between 25 to 64-year-old living in the city of Brno in the Czech Republic. The participants had healthy hearts, and provided information including their BMI, diet, physical activity levels, whether they smoked, blood pressure, cholesterol and fasting blood sugar level. Of the total, around 42 percent owned a pet: 24 percent owned a dog, while 17.9 percent another type of animal.

The team used the American Heart Association heart score system test, which looks at seven changeable risk factors of cardiovascular health, to rate the participants. These include blood pressure, cholesterol, blood sugar, exercise, diet, weight, and smoking.

Dog owners were more likely to exercise, have an ideal diet and blood glucose level than those who didn't. However, they were also more likely to smoke. Still, overall they scored better on the test for cardiovascular health.

However, the authors warned: "The higher smoking rates among dog ownership attenuates the association between dog ownership and CVH [cardiovascular health]."

The study adds to existing evidence linking dog ownership to better mental and physical health.

Study co-author Andrea Maugeri, a researcher with the International Clinical Research Center at St. Anne's University Hospital in Brno and Italy's University of Catania, commented in a statement: "In general, people who owned any pet were more likely to report more physical activity, better diet and blood sugar at ideal level.

"The greatest benefits from having a pet were for those who owned a dog, independent of their age, sex and education level."

Maugeri said the research suggests getting a pooch could be a useful way to boost heart health, if it encouraged the owner to exercise more.

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A stock image of a dog sniffing a woman's face. Scientists have researchers the health benefits of pet ownership. Getty

Such interventions could be an important way to tackle the prevalence of heart disease. In the U.S., heart disease is the leading cause of death, killing around 610,000 people die every year. That's one in four deaths, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Senior investigator Francisco Lopez-Jimenez, chair of the Division of Preventive Cardiology at Mayo Clinic in Rochester, said owning dogs has previously been linked to better mental health and feeling less lonely, which are both thought to decrease the risk of heart attacks.

One study published last year in the journal BMC Psychiatry looking at 17 existing papers concluded having a pet could ease symptoms of mental illness.

Another paper published in the journal Scientific Reports in 2017 similarly linked pet dogs with lower risk of cardiovascular disease and a lower overall risk of death.

Tove Fall, veterinarian and professor of Molecular Epidemiology at Sweden's Uppsala University, who co-authored the Scientific Reports paper, told Newsweek: "This study is interesting as it studies the combination of different cardiovascular risk factors and not just single risk factors.

"One limitation of the study is that it is cross-sectional, meaning that it did not investigate whether dogs or risk factors occurred first, i.e. it could be so that people that already have a healthy lifestyle are more prone to get a dog."

Asked whether people should get dogs to improve their health, she argued: "With regards of getting a dog as a lifestyle intervention, I think it is important to highlight the dog welfare perspective, and only those with an interest and capacity to be a good dog owner should consider getting one."

Dr. Deborah Wells, director of the Animal Behaviour Centre at Queen's University Belfast in the U.K., told Newsweek: "This research area in general is sorely lacking in robust longitudinal studies—ones that monitor the health of people from the point of their new pet's acquisition. The cross-sectional design adopted in the majority of studies makes it difficult to infer cause and effect, and, in this respect, the current research suffers from the same methodological limitations."

Philippa Hobson, senior cardiac nurse for the British Heart Foundation, told Newsweek: "Whether you're a pet-owner or not, physical activity can benefit your heart in lots of different ways. It can help to reduce your risk of heart disease, help control your weight, and reduce your blood pressure and cholesterol. It can even improve your mental health. Just spending 10 minutes a day walking around the block is good for your heart health."