Numerous studies show that owning a pet has beneficial effects on your blood pressure and reduces your risk of a heart attack or stroke. While owning a dog motivates you to go for at least one daily walk, benefits are also seen from owning a cat so it’s not all about the physical exercise.
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Health benefits of owning a pet
Two out of every three households own at least one pet and, as well as offering companionship and love, they are beneficial for health and blood pressure, too.
Pets lower your stress levels. After spending as little as 15 minutes with your pet, your level of the stress hormone, cortisol, falls, and the level of serotonin, your ‘feel good’ brain chemical, increases so you feel less stressed, and more happy. Stroking a pet also releases the feel good hormone, oxytocin, the bonding and relaxing hormone that’s released when a mother nurses her baby, or when lovers caress. No matter how stressed you feel, his helps you feel less anxious, more relaxed and connected, too.
Pets lower your blood pressure. Pet owners tend to have lower blood pressure, lower cholesterol levels, lower triglyceride levels and a lower resting heart rate than those who don’t have a pet.
Pets boost your immunity. People who live with animals develop a stronger immune system and are more likely to fight off infections.
Pets help you exercise. Dog owners usually walk their dogs for at least 15 minutes, twice a day. That adds up to 30 minutes exercise every day, for you, which is the minimum recommended level for blood pressure benefits, heart health, and preventing weight gain.
Pets help you make friends. Walking your dog, or throwing them a stick or ball in the park or on the beach, is a great way to get talking to other dog owners and make new friends.
Blood pressure benefits of owning a pet
Lots of studies show the benefits of owning a pet is associated with a lower blood pressure and a lower risk of experiencing a heart attack or stroke.
One of the first studies involved 5741 people attending a screening clinic in Melbourne. The pet owners had a significantly lower systolic blood pressures (upper reading) and significantly lower cholesterol and triglyceride levels than in those who did not own a pet, even though they otherwise had similar weight and smoking habits. The pet owners did take more exercise than the non-owners, but also ate more meat and ‘take-away’ foods. After taking all factors into account, the researchers concluded that pet ownership reduced cardiovascular risk factors and needed more investigation.
When older 1179 people from California (aged 50 to 95) had their blood pressure checked, that of pet owners was 6.7/8.4 mmHg lower, on average than in those who did not have a pet (132.8/55.5 mmHg versus 139.5/63.9 mmHg). Overall, pet owners were 38% less likely to have hypertension than non-pet owners.
A fascinating study from New York involved 240 married couples, of whom half lived with a single pet while the other half had not owned a pet for at least 5 years. When their heart disease risk factors were assessed, the couples with a cat or dog had significantly lower systolic and diastolic blood pressures than those without a pet (6/5 mmHg lower for men, 2/1 mmHg lower for women).
The couples were then individually subjected to stress (doing rapid arithmetic or placing a hand in ice water for two minutes). The stress-related rise in blood pressure was significantly lower for pet owners if their pet was also present (10/3 mmHg rise compared to a 27/14 mmHg rise when tested alone). For non-pet owners, however, blood pressure rises were even greater if their friend or spouse was present.
The researchers concluded that pets help to dampen the effects of acute stress and diminish the perception of stress. As stress is a recognised risk factor for essential hypertension, owning a pet might even help to protect against the development of high blood pressure. No significant differences were seen between owning a cat or a dog in this study.
Blood pressure benefits of owning a dog
According to health and life insurance company, Vitality, dog owners spend more time exercising every month than those without a canine companion. A third of dog walkers exercise for at least half an hour every day, compared to just over a fifth of adults overall. Interestingly, 45% of dog owners said their main reason for walking the dog was to benefit their own health as well as that of their pet, and more than a third said that owning a pet had improved their overall health.
The breed of dog you choose can make a big difference. Labrador owners were the fittest overall and most likely to exercise for more than 30 minutes a day. Based on the percentage of owners who exercise for more than 30 minutes per day, the best breeds to own to help you remain fit, in descending order, are:
- Golden Retriever
- Border Terrier
- Border Collie
- Staffordshire Bull Terrier
An online survey of almost 1000 people found that, overall, dog owners were 71% less likely to have high blood pressure than non-owners, and were also 2.5 times less likely to have diabetes, 72% less likely to have raised cholesterol levels, and 49% more likely to suffer from depression. These benefits appear to be linked with regular dog walking.
Other researchers identified 30 people with borderline hypertension who planned to adopt a dog. Half went ahead and adopted their dog from a shelter, while the other half deferred their adoption. Ambulatory blood pressure monitoring showed that systolic blood pressures were significantly lower at 2 months and 5 months after dog adoption, compared with the group who did not get their dog immediately. After the deferred group adopted their dog, however, their systolic blood pressures also came down to a similar level.
Heart benefits of having a cat
Walking a dog isn’t the only benefit gained from owning a pet, of course. Few cat owners accompany their pet on a daily jaunt, yet having a cat is one of the best ways to lower your risk of cardiovascular disease.
Researchers looked at almost 4000 healthy adults, aged 50 plus, of whom just over a third owned a cat or dog. During the follow-up period of over ten years, pet ownership was associated with a 31% lower risk of dying from a heart attack or stroke.
When the results were adjusted for levels of physical activity, the benefits were largely down to owning a cat rather than walking a dog – especially for women.
Among cat owners, the risk of dying from cardiovascular disease was 38% lower than for non-pet owners, with the risk of dying from stroke reduced by as much as 78%. Among dog owners, the risk of dying from cardiovascular disease was 18% lower than for non-pet owners, while the risk of a fatal stroke was 24% lower.
The researchers believed the protection that comes from having a pet may not just be from physical exercise, but from the stress-relieving effects of animal companionship.
Owning a pet is a responsibility, but if you have room in your life for a cat or dog, you may gain significant health benefits. Alternatively, you could offer to regularly walk the dog of a friend or neighbour, or even set up a home business or side hustle as a professional dog walker.
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