What’s better than a long life, free of disease? A long life, free of disease, with your loving dog by your side. It's no pipe dream: Dog owners have a lower risk of death than people who don’t care for a furry friend, according to a paper published today in Scientific Reports.
Tove Fall, a veterinarian and an assistant professor of epidemiology at Uppsala University in Sweden, decided to explore the link between dog ownership and risk of death because the families of her pet patients are always swooning over them. “As a veterinarian, I have heard so many stories from pet owners on how much their pet means to them in terms of social support,” Fall says. Plus, past research has shown that dog owners are more likely to get enough exercise, so it seemed logical to dig in deeper.
Fall and her colleagues wanted to find out specifically if there was any association between dog ownership, heart health, and mortality. For the study, they gathered data on 3.4 million Swedish residents between 40 and 80 years old. They chose this age range because young people naturally have a lower risk of cardiovascular disease and death to begin with, and people older than 80 are less likely to care for their own dogs.
The researchers controlled for things like age, gender, income, whether individuals had children, and some other factors relating to where they were born and where they live now. In a separate subset of almost 35,000 twins, they also controlled for health-specific factors like body mass index, physical activity levels, and smoking.
Fall and her team found that all of the people who lived with dogs were less likely to die from heart disease or any other cause during the 12-year follow-up period. But they were particularly surprised by the fact that people who lived on their own with a dog benefited a lot more than people who lived with a dog and with other humans, Fall says. People who lived on their own with their pet were 33 percent less likely to die (versus 11 percent for people who also lived with other people) and 36 percent less likely to die from heart disease (compared to 15 percent for people in multi-person households).
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People in single-person households who had a dog also had an 8 percent reduced risk of cardiovascular diseases, though there was no benefit for people in multi-person households. The authors conclude that people living on their own with their dog might reap more benefits because single owners are likely to spend more one-on-one time with their dogs and walk them more than people who share a pet.
Their findings don’t show causation, so we can’t say that dogs reduce your risk of death and heart disease, but pups can change their families’ habits in big ways. It might be that dogs offer social support, help reduce stress, and encourage you to be more physically active, says Fall, who has a five-month-old puppy herself.
“Pets certainly are important motivators of healthy behavior choices for many,” says Kate Hodgson, a veterinarian at the University of Toronto. “The positive effect pets have on the health of their families is often a combination of the four forms of zooeyia.” (Zooeiya: a term that was recently coined to refer specifically to the health benefits pets have on humans.)
First, they can encourage healthy behaviors like exercise. Second, they can help foster social relationships—a 2015 study found that pet owners in the US were 61 percent more likely to get to know their neighbors and 40 percent more likely to receive social support from people they met through their pets (like on walks or at the dog park) than non-pet owners. Third, they can discourage their owners from taking part in harmful habits, like smoking. (Dogs who live with smokers die younger than dogs in smoke-free homes, so please, snuff out your cig.) And finally, they may be part of health-related treatment plans.
Your dog might also enrich your microbiome—the bugs that live on your skin and in your saliva, to start—by licking you and exposing you to things like dirt, Fall says. They probably have more diverse flora—or oral bacteria—than you do, since they, you know, eat things off the ground and such.
If you’re not a dog person (which you should be), you may get similar benefits from other pets. I can hate on cats all I want—they poop indoors, they climb on counters, they suck—but they can have heart-healthy impacts, too: People who cared for cats at any point in their lives were 26 percent less likely to die from cardiovascular diseases during a 20-year follow-up period than people who had never lived with a cat, according to a study of 4,435 people in the Journal of Vascular Interventional Neurology.
Don’t take this as a free license to run out and bring a dog home just to dodge heart disease and death. There are some important, non-negotiable prerequisites for getting a dog, like being a decent human, making sure your pup gets plenty of exercise, and treating your four-legged family member with love and respect. Use Fall as an example: She was heading out to the dog park with her puppy when we connected to discuss her research.
“I would only recommend getting a dog if you feel that you have the capacity to take care of it, as it is a big responsibility,” Fall says.
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