Character  &  Context

The Science of Who We Are and How We Relate
Editors: Mark Leary, Shira Gabriel, Brett Pelham
May 18, 2020

Our Furry Best Friends Offer Us More than Companionship

by Renée S. Suen
Woman holding and embracing Shiba Inu dog

Almost all dog owners extoll the virtues of pet ownership. Dogs adore us, and they are both loyal and fun. And unlike our human friends and co-workers, they never lie to us. Even more, our recent research on pet ownership suggests that dogs may also help us live longer. But is this because being around dogs is good for our health? Or is it true for less interesting reasons? Perhaps people who are unhealthy in the first place generally avoid adopting pets. That would make dog ownership look like it promotes health when it is actually the case that health promotes dog ownership.   

But evidence suggests that dog ownership has true benefits.  Dog companionship has been shown to have a positive effect on the human cardiovascular system—by lowering blood pressure,  improving lipid profiles (those bad fats that can lead towards coronary disease), and decreasing stress or anxiety. In fact in 2013, the American Heart Association stated that "pet ownership, particularly dog ownership, may be reasonable for reduction in cardiovascular disease risk."

We decided to dig deeper into the question of whether dog ownership per se really promotes human health.  Our article’s lead author, Caroline Kramer—a doctor, medical researcher, and endocrinologist—had recently adopted a feisty and rambunctious mini schnauzer named Romeo. Romeo brought his adoptive mom a lot of joy.

Along with Sadia Mehmood and myself, our team conducted a non-randomized systematic review of every study of pet ownership and health published between 1950 and mid-2019. From this rigorous screening, we selected 10 studies that tracked changes in people’s health over time. We focused on studies of adult patients (18 and over) who were or were not pet owners at the beginning of these prospective studies. Using a statistical averaging technique known as meta-analysis, we assessed the effect of dog ownership on all-cause mortality (death from any cause) as well as death from cardiovascular disease in particular. We also looked separately at patients who did and did not have cardiovascular disease at the beginning of the study.

What we found was beyond encouraging, reinforcing what dog owners believe regarding the positive health impact of their canine friends.

Over an average follow-up period of 10 years in these studies—and for a group of 3.8 million patients—dog ownership was associated with a 24% risk reduction for all-cause mortality. The benefits were even more impressive for people with pre-existing heart conditions, who showed a 31% risk reduction.  In fact, those who had previously had heart conditions such as a heart attack showed a 65% risk reduction in death rates. These effects held up in each of the six nations where the studies were conducted—from Scandinavian nations to New Zealand. Toto’s friendship clearly has potentially life-extending effects!

The fact that dog ownership had the biggest effect on cardiovascular mortality suggests that dog ownership may exert most of its benefits on cardiovascular health. For example, improved health among dog owners may come from increased physical activity. The simple act of taking Fido out for a daily walk or two helps owners meet the American Heart Association's recommended weekly activity of 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise that helps improve overall cardiovascular health.

But the effects aren’t just physical; pets can also improve mental well-being. Besides companionship, pets can lower their owners’ sense of loneliness not only by providing companionship themselves but also by increasing the owner’s interaction with other people (just try to resist the friendly eyes and wagging tail of someone’s furry friend). Adding fuel to the fire, results from the 2018 General Social Survey show that dog owners reported they were happier than cat owners.

However, owning a dog isn’t the magic pill for longevity. The same American Heart Association statement from 2013 that concluded that dog ownership lowers cardiovascular disease risk also warned that “pet adoption, rescue, or purchase should not be done for the primary purpose of reducing cardiovascular risk.”

Our study still leaves some questions unanswered. Does dog ownership lower blood pressure or cholesterol levels?  Are owners more active or physically fit?  And are there other reasons why dog owners healthier?  For example, it’s possible that people with the disposable income to care for a dog may also be better able to care for themselves or that people who own dogs are more active and pursue a healthier lifestyle overall compared with non-owners. 

But we can say that dog ownership appears to have health benefits and that the potential benefits of dog ownership seem to be especially strong for people who have experienced a heart attack or stroke. Although this is not proof positive that owning a dog is a direct way to “Pass go and collect $200” like in Monopoly, it certainly suggests it.

Makes you consider picking the Scottie dog over the thimble or boot in your next game, doesn’t it?


For Further Reading

Kramer, C.K., Mehmood, S., & Suen, R.S. Dog Ownership and Survival: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. Circulation: Cardiovascular Quality and Outcomes. 12, e005554.  

Kazi, D.S. Who Is Rescuing Whom? Dog Ownership and Cardiovascular Health. Circulation: Cardiovascular Quality and Outcomes. 12, e005887. 

 

Renée S. Suen is a restaurant and travel writer/photographer based in Toronto who searches the world for memorable tastes and the stories behind the plate. In another life she pursued a doctorate in Cardiovascular Sciences but still dabbles in her first passion every once in a while. Renée also owns a medium-sized parrot that is very much like a dog in all aspects except that she talks back.

 

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Why is this blog called Character & Context?

Everything that people think, feel, and do is affected by some combination of their personal characteristics and features of the social context they are in at the time. Character & Context explores the latest insights about human behavior from research in personality and social psychology, the scientific field that studies the causes of everyday behaviors.  

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