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How Your Pet Affects Your Heart

Illustration: Sarah Wilkins

Having a pet can help keep you and your ticker healthy.

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. 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.

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.

Photo: © David Burton/Beateworks/Corbis

“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.

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.