Can Pets Improve Your Heart Health?

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Pets can light up your lives in so many ways – but did you know they can be good for your health, too? Some studies have shown that the company of a pet can be more beneficial than that of a friend or even a spouse. Interacting with a pet can help reduce stress, blood pressure levels, and rates of depression – all of which can lower your risk of heart disease. Pets also encourage physical activity – especially if your furry friend likes to go on long walks. There's even evidence that people who have heart disease are more likely to survive if they have a pet by their side. So, if you’ve opened up your heart to a pet, your heart may be the better for it.

Pets can light up your lives in so many ways – but did you know they can be good for your health, too? A pet can improve your self-esteem, make you more conscientious, encourage physical activity, and help block any negativity that may come with social rejection or a relationship gone sour.1 That’s not all though! The unconditional love you feel for pets can make your heart stronger – literally. Research shows that interacting with our furry or feathery friends can benefit the heart through various mechanisms.2 Here’s how they do it.

Lower Stress With Your Pet

Psychosocial stress accounts for approximately 30% of a person’s risk of a heart attack. Anxiety, depression, and hostility can increase this risk. Stress can cause inflammation, metabolic irregularities, endothelial dysfunction (damage to the inner lining of blood vessels), and insulin resistance by negatively affecting hormonal and autonomic balance (i.e. blood pressure, heart rate, and body temperature).3

Research shows that interacting with a dog can have a positive effect on your endocrine responses, which is reflected in changes in the levels of stress hormones norepinephrine, epinephrine, and cortisol.4 In one study, children’s cortisol levels were actually lower while interacting with a friendly dog versus a friendly human.5 People also show a greater reduction in cortisol levels while petting a dog – either their own or a stranger’s – than they do while reading a book.6

Reduce The Pressure

Compared to chatting with a friend or cozying up with a good book, petting a dog can actually lower your blood pressure more – and that’s good news for your heart too. In fact, stroking your dog for about three minutes can lead to lowered heart rates nearly an hour later.7 In one study, people hospitalized for heart problems experienced reduced systolic pulmonary artery pressure to a greater degree after a visit by a person with a dog than a visit by just a person. One of the most interesting findings shows that the presence of a pet during a stressful event can be more helpful than being alone, with a friend, or even your spouse. The company of a pet can mean a lower heart rate and blood pressure under stress.8

Beat The Blues

Depression is a major risk factor for heart disease, and those with heart disease have two to three times higher mortality rates if they are also struggling with depression.9 But pets can help reverse this trend. For example, a study found that, over two years, the rate of depression decreased in people living in a nursing home with a dog.10 Even looking after a canary for three months can lower depression and improve quality of life.11 Visits by animals have also been found to reduce loneliness in people in long-term care institutions.12

That Pooch Is Meant For Walking

Getting as little as 30 minutes of walking per day can be significantly beneficial for the health of your heart, reducing the chances of cardiovascular disease and stroke.13 Dogs in particular can easily help us reach this goal. Dog owners are more likely than non-dog owners to engage in the recommended daily level of physical activity: A Japanese study showed that they were 54% more likely to do so, while a Canadian study found that dog owners walked about 132 more minutes per week than those without a dog. This means obesity levels are typically lower for dog walkers as well.14

Caring For Your Heart

Anyone already afflicted with heart disease will surely find pleasure in the company of a pet, and that companionship can even increase their survival rate. Among people with cardiovascular diseases, mortality rates were about four times higher in non-dog owners than in dog owners, after accounting for differences in the severity of heart disease.15

So, if you’ve opened up your heart to a pet, your heart and your overall health will likely be the better for it. Just remember that caring for a pet is a big responsibility, but one that will brighten up your life – and maybe even extend it, too.

References   [ + ]

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2, 14. Levine, Glenn N., Karen Allen, Lynne T. Braun, Hayley E. Christian, Erika Friedmann, Kathryn A. Taubert, Sue Ann Thomas, Deborah L. Wells, and Richard A. Lange. “Pet Ownership and Cardiovascular Risk A Scientific Statement From the American Heart Association.” Circulation 127, no. 23 (2013): 2353-2363.
3. Das, Sajal, and James H. O’Keefe. “Behavioral cardiology: recognizing and addressing the profound impact of psychosocial stress on cardiovascular health.” Current atherosclerosis reports 8, no. 2 (2006): 111-118.
4. Cole, Kathie M., Anna Gawlinski, Neil Steers, and Jenny Kotlerman. “Animal-assisted therapy in patients hospitalized with heart failure.” American Journal of Critical Care 16, no. 6 (2007): 575-585.
5. Beetz, Andrea, Kurt Kotrschal, Dennis C. Turner, Karin Hediger, Kerstin Uvnäs-Moberg, and Henri Julius. “The effect of a real dog, toy dog and friendly person on insecurely attached children during a stressful task: An exploratory study.” Anthrozoös 24, no. 4 (2011): 349-368.
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7. Handlin, Linda, Eva Hydbring-Sandberg, Anne Nilsson, Mikael Ejdebäck, Anna Jansson, and Kerstin Uvnäs-Moberg. “Short-term interaction between dogs and their owners: effects on oxytocin, cortisol, insulin and heart rate—an exploratory study.” Anthrozoös 24, no. 3 (2011): 301-315.
8. Beetz, Andrea, Kerstin Uvnäs-Moberg, Henri Julius, and Kurt Kotrschal. “Psychosocial and psychophysiological effects of human-animal interactions: the possible role of oxytocin.” Frontiers in psychology 3 (2012): 234.
9. Jang, W., R. Krishnan, and C. O’Connor. “Depression and heart disease: evidence of a link, and its therapeutic implications CNS Drugs 2002. 16. 111-127.” Ford DE. Mead LA, Chang PP el al (1998): 1422-1426.
10. Crowley-Robinson, Patricia, Douglas C. Fenwick, and Judith K. Blackshaw. “A long-term study of elderly people in nursing homes with visiting and resident dogs.” Applied Animal Behaviour Science 47, no. 1 (1996): 137-148.
11. Colombo, Giovanni, Marirosa Dello Buono, Katya Smania, Roberta Raviola, and Diego De Leo. “Pet therapy and institutionalized elderly: a study on 144 cognitively unimpaired subjects.” Archives of gerontology and geriatrics 42, no. 2 (2006): 207-216.
12. Banks, Marian R., and William A. Banks. “The effects of animal-assisted therapy on loneliness in an elderly population in long-term care facilities.” The journals of gerontology series A: biological sciences and medical sciences 57, no. 7 (2002): M428-M432.
13. Walking, American Heart Association.
15. Friedmann, Erika, and Sue A. Thomas. “Pet ownership, social support, and one-year survival after acute myocardial infarction in the Cardiac Arrhythmia Suppression Trial (CAST).” The American journal of cardiology 76, no. 17 (1995): 1213-1217.