Dogs May Melt Your Heart, but They Also Make It Healthier

Nov 17, 2017 at 11:28 a.m. ET
Image: Janie Airey/Getty Images

Anyone who has ever had or loved a dog knows that it comes with some pretty great perks, including cuddles, companionship and affection. But it turns out, having a dog also has a major health benefit: It's good for your (literal) heart.

A new study out of Sweden used data from 3.4 million people in their national registries between the ages of 40 and 80 and found that those who had a dog had a lower risk of death from cardiovascular disease than those who were dog-free.

More: Study Shows That Women With Dogs Have Healthier Babies

The heart-health benefits of being a dog parent were especially pronounced among people living alone (in this case, meaning without other humans), which, according to the study's authors, is a group reported previously to be at higher risk of cardiovascular disease and death than those living with other people. Specifically, the research found there was a 33 percent reduction in risk of death and an 11 percent reduction in risk of having a heart attack during follow-up compared to people who lived alone who did not have a dog.

"Perhaps a dog may stand in as an important family member in the single households," said Mwenya Mubanga, lead junior author of the study and Ph.D. student at the Department of Medical Sciences and the Science for Life Laboratory, Uppsala University, in a statement.

Although these large-scale studies based on massive data sets like the national registries in Sweden are an interesting and helpful way of finding associations, it doesn't provide specific answers about how having a dog improves heart health.

More: Does Sleeping With Your Dog Help or Harm Your Sleep Quality?

But the researchers do have some theories. For starters, we do know that having a dog means (well, requires) a higher level of physical activity — basically acting as a furry personal trainer that ensures you get your steps in taking it on walks and refilling its food and water bowl. According to Tove Fall, senior author of the study and associate professor in epidemiology at the Department of Medical Sciences and the Science for Life Laboratory, Uppsala University, there are other explanations, including that having a dog typically means increased well-being and social contacts for the owner in addition to effects of the dog on their bacterial microbiome.

"There might also be differences between owners and non-owners already before buying a dog, which could have influenced our results, such as those people choosing to get a dog tending to be more active and of better health," Fall added.

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