Illustration: Sarah Wilkins

Having a pet can improve your health, keeping you and your ticker healthy. We explored some of the studies that back up this revelation.

May 05, 2016

Who knew that having pets can improve your health? We certainly didn't know that was the case with our canine. A third of the time we “walk” our dog, Daisy, she stands still and ponders. She is, after all, a canine of a certain age and heft. It's entirely possible, too, she's on the lookout for squirrels, but that's neither here nor there. Since we took over Daisy’s care from my father, our daily walks take twice as long, and we cover about a quarter of the distance we walked pre-dog. So how is it that having a pet can improve our health when we're walking even less than normal? 

Apparently, we are in the minority. There’s solid research telling us that people who own pets, specifically dogs, are more likely than no-dog people to meet recommendations for healthy amounts of activity, says Lynne Braun, PhD, nurse practitioner and professor of nursing at Rush University College of Nursing. Braun is an author of “Pet Ownership and Cardiovascular Risk: A Scientific Statement from the American Heart Association.”

While some studies the authors reviewed showed that pet ownership protected against high blood pressure, pet ownership by itself won’t necessarily help you lose weight.

“We saw minimal data on pets and cholesterol levels, and unfortunately the increased exercise we saw did not correlate with body weight,” says Braun. “People who owned pets were not thinner on average than those who didn’t own pets.”

But there were some studies that showed pet owners seemed to have a healthier, less hyperreactive response to stress and a quicker recovery from stressors when they occurred. And there are survival benefits of pet ownership for people who already have cardiovascular disease. “As care providers, we are always looking for ways to reduce risk from heart disease, and it appears that pet ownership improves survival for these higher-risk patients,” she says.

Photo: © David Burton/Beateworks/Corbis

The American Heart Association’s final recommendation? “Pet ownership, particularly dog ownership, may be reasonable for reduction in cardiovascular disease risk,” says Braun. “I would never say to my patients, ‘If you owned a dog, you could stop your blood pressure medications,’” she says. “But I would, and I have, talked to patients about the benefits of pet ownership in terms of increasing physical activity, decreasing their stress level, and in terms of supporting cardiovascular risk reduction.”

Based on my family’s very small and entirely unscientific trial of pet ownership, I can report that in the days of my father’s last illness and since his passing, we’ve been grateful every day for Daisy’s company. She is the chubby, fluffy embodiment of my dad’s good humor and optimism. She may not be doing all that much for our waistlines, but we’re certain Daisy does our hearts good.