Score another one for Fido! While health benefits, ranging from lower blood pressure to improved immunity, have already been linked to dog ownership, researchers have now gone a step further in discovering important new perks for people who have suffered a heart attack or stroke.
The recent evidence is based on two studies—one conducted in Canada and the other in Sweden. Both were published in Circulation: Cardiovascular Quality and Outcomes, a journal of the American Heart Association (AHA).
Why this matters: This round of research follows a 2013 statement by the AHA that dog ownership could reduce your risk for cardiovascular events, including stroke and heart attack. But the statement was based on smaller studies. The two new studies are big, and the findings are impressive—especially for people who live alone, which may contribute to social isolation and depression…both known health risks.
Research finding #1: In the study from Sweden, researchers compared survival after a heart attack or stroke between dog owners and people without a dog. About 180,000 heart attack survivors (nearly 6% of whom had dogs) and about 155,000 ischemic stroke survivors (close to 5% of whom had dogs) were tracked for 11 years. The researchers determined which study participants had dogs by checking data from the Swedish Board of Agriculture, which has required registration of dog ownership since 2001, and the Swedish Kennel Club (pedigree dogs have been registered since 1889).
Compared with people who didn’t own dogs, this study found…
• Among those who had suffered a heart attack and lived alone, dog owners were 33% less likely to die during the study period. For heart attack survivors who lived with a spouse or child, having a dog reduced the risk for death by 15%.
• Among those who had suffered a stroke and lived alone, dog owners were 27% less likely to die during the study period. For stroke survivors who lived with a spouse or child, dog ownership reduced the risk for death by 12%.
Not surprisingly, the researchers theorized that people who owned a dog lived longer than those without one because they got more exercise from walking the dog and benefited from the animal’s companionship. However, in people who lived alone, the benefit was even greater—perhaps because the animal helped them overcome their risk for social isolation and physical inactivity. But people who had social contact with family members clearly benefited, too.
Research finding #2: In the Canadian study, researchers reviewed 10 studies between 1950 and 2019 that included close to four million people. When the dog owners’ survival was compared with that of people who didn’t have dogs, the dog owners were 24% less likely to die from any cause of death. When they compared people with a history of heart attack, dog owners were a whopping 65% less likely to die than those without a dog…and 31% less likely to die from a cardiovascular-related cause.
Another interesting finding: According to a commentary letter on both studies published in Circulation: Cardiovascular Quality and Outcomes, in the Swedish study, people with active breeds fared better, possibly because those dogs need more physical activity.
Even though these studies do not prove that dog ownership increases survival after heart attack or stroke, they strongly suggest it. The association holds up in all the studies. Still, the researchers said that additional studies are needed.
“Our analyses did not account for confounders such as better fitness or an overall healthier lifestyle that could be associated with dog ownership,” explained Caroline K. Kramer, MD, PhD, a coauthor of the Canadian study and assistant professor of medicine at University of Toronto, who has personally experienced benefits from owning a dog. “As a dog owner myself, I can say that adopting Romeo has increased my steps and physical activity each day, and he has filled my daily routine with joy and unconditional love.”
Of course, dogs should be owned only by individuals who are capable of caring for them properly, the research team added.