The idea that pet ownership is good for your health is nothing new. Studies have shown that having a pet—particularly a dog or cat—can have a profound effect on many aspects of health. Pets help reduce stress, keep our minds sharper, and improve mental health. Now a Swedish study suggests that owning a dog, especially if you live alone, might actually reduce your risk of death from cardiovascular disease.
The study looked at the medical records and pet ownership status of over 3 million people. The participants were all between ages 40 and 80 and were followed for 12 years. About 13%, or almost 400,000 people, owned dogs.
The dog owners as a group had a significantly lower rate of death from cardiovascular disease than those who didn’t have a dog, but the benefit was especially striking among people who lived alone. Multi-person dog-owning households had a 15% lower CV death rate than non-dog households, but for people who lived alone and had a dog the risk reduction was a whopping 36%.
Although researchers can’t explain the link between dog ownership and the decreased risk of CV death, it doesn’t surprise some scientists. People who live alone are twice as likely to die prematurely as people with good social support and having a dog may help offset inadequate human social networking for these people. And in fact, those who live alone but own a dog are a third less likely to die from any cause than people who live alone without a dog.
The researchers are quick to point out that although it’s clear that dog ownership is beneficial when it comes to cardiovascular disease, they really don’t know why. It could be that having a dog nudges people toward more healthy behavior like exercising more. Indeed, people who owned breeds of dogs originally intended for hunting, like terriers and retrievers, had the lowest CV risk of all.
On the other hand, regular exposure to dogs may change the makeup of our microbiome or have some other as-yet unknown role in our health. The stress-busting effect of having a doggy companion might reduce blood pressure. Or it may be a combination of factors. Whatever the underlying reason, the message seems clear: having a dog is good for your heart.