Dog lovers know how much warmth and comfort their canine companions add to their lives.
But they might not know that a growing body of evidence suggests that having a dog may help improve heart health.
Pet ownership, especially having a dog, is probably associated with a decreased risk of cardiovascular disease.
This does not mean that there is a clear cause and effect relationship between the two. But it does mean that pet ownership can be a reasonable part of an overall strategy to lower the risk of heart disease.
Several studies have shown that dog owners have lower blood pressure than non-owners – probably because their pets have a calming effect on them and because dog owners tend to get more exercise.
The power of touch also appears to be an important part of this “pet effect.” Several studies show that blood pressure goes down when a person pets a dog.
There is some evidence that owning a dog is associated with lower cholesterol and triglyceride levels.
A large study focusing on this question found that dog owners had lower cholesterol and triglyceride levels than non-owners, and that these differences weren’t explainable by diet, smoking, or body mass index (BMI). However, the reason for these differences is still not clear.
Dogs’ calming effect on humans also appears to help people handle stress.
For example, some research suggests that people with dogs experience less cardiovascular reactivity during times of stress.
That means that their heart rate and blood pressure go up less and return to normal more quickly, dampening the effects of stress on the body.
Dog owners are estimated to be four times more likely than non-dog owning adults to meet recommended physical activity guidelines, according to new University of Liverpool research.
The findings, which are published today in Scientific Reports, highlight the role that dogs may have in helping to keep humans healthy.
It is recommended that adults should do at least 150 minutes of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity per week.
However, this is achieved by only 66% of men and 58% of women in England and fewer than 50% of adults in the USA.
Dog ownership is expected to encourage physical activity, but it has been unclear whether this effect occurs in all members of a dog-owning household, or whether dog walking replaces other forms of exercise.
Dr Carri Westgarth and colleagues assessed the self-reported physical activity of 385 households in West Cheshire, UK (191 dog owning adults, 455 non-dog owning adults and 46 children).
Dog owners walk more frequently and for longer periods than non-dog owners, the results show. Moreover, dog walking in this population is undertaken in addition to, and not instead of, other physical activities.
The effects of dog ownership on physical activity levels in the UK reported in the present study are greater than those reported in previous studies of North American and Australian populations.
For example, 64% of dog owners in the new UK study reported that they walk with their dogs for at least 150 minutes per week, compared with only 27% in a USA study.
The study suggests that these discrepancies may be due to social and climatic differences, such as a higher proportion of outdoor (and self-exercised) dogs in the USA and Australia than in the UK
Dr Westgarth said: “Our findings provide support for the role of pet dogs in promoting and maintaining positive health behaviours such as walking.
Without dogs, it is likely that population physical activity levels would be much lower.
The health benefits of dog ownership should be recognised and facilitated through the provision of dog-supportive walking environments and pet-friendly housing; failure of planning and policy makers to provide these may significantly damage population levels of physical activity.”
More information: Carri Westgarth et al. Dog owners are more likely to meet physical activity guidelines than people without a dog: An investigation of the association between dog ownership and physical activity levels in a UK community, Scientific Reports (2019). DOI: 10.1038/s41598-019-41254-6
Journal information: Scientific Reports
Provided by University of Liverpool