Want a Healthy Heart? Get a Dog

I hit snooze when my 6:30 a.m. alarm went off. When I finally got out of bed, I dragged my feet to the coffee pot and slugged down an extra cup. Instead of whipping up my usual delicious and nutritious breakfast smoothie, I poured a bowl of Lucky Charms. I was just feeling too lazy to face the blender.

In fact, I was feeling too lazy to do almost anything. When I woke, I just wanted to curl back up and watch a movie. The prospect of my morning run and the mere thought of my overflowing inbox sent me back in for another bowl of cereal.

I was reluctant to put on my running shoes. But my dog needed a morning on the trails, so out we went.

The first mile was sluggish. I was lethargic and resistant. Shirley, my red heeler/miniature schnauzer, pulled me along toward the trails. The second mile was better. By the third, I was having as much fun as Shirley. I saw the Boulder Mountain Park trails through her eyes and had a blast.

My Shirley walks or runs are always the highlights of my day. She gets me out the door even when it seems like nothing could. She keeps me more active than I might be otherwise. So maybe it’s not surprising that my canine companion might help lower my risk of heart disease.

Studies linking pet ownership to better physical and mental health have popped up for decades. While they’re encouraging for pet owners, none of the studies offered conclusive proof. So a panel of American Heart Association (AHA) experts weighed all the available evidence and found that having a pet—a dog in particular—lowers the risk of heart disease.

Dog walks and runs are clearly great ways to get moving but that’s not the whole story. While dog owners get more physical activity than people who don’t own dogs, the evidence is pretty convincing that ownership isn’t enough. A 2008 study of 1,813 adults found that people who owned a dog but didn’t walk it were actually more likely to be obese than people who didn’t own a dog. Dog walkers, on the other hand, were much less likely to be obese.

But it’s not all about physical activity either. A study following people with high blood pressure and high-stress jobs who agreed to adopt a dog or a cat had significantly lower blood pressure when stressed after six months of pet ownership.

Pets aren’t just good for preventing heart problems. Getting a dog also seems to help even if you already have heart disease. A 1995 study following 369 people with cardiovascular disease found that dog owners were four times more likely to be alive than the ones without dogs. Cats, however, did not improve their owners’ odds of survival.

I’m not saying you should run to the Humane Society for the sake of increased fitness and improved cardiovascular health. That’s the wrong reason to bring a pet into your life. The AHA panel agreed that “the primary purpose of adopting, rescuing, or purchasing a pet should not be to achieve a reduction in cardiovascular risk.” But if you’re on the fence about welcoming a furry friend into your family, you can list “improved heart health” as a worthy reason to consider adopting.