Nikki Harper – Anyone who has ever owned a dog, loved a dog or wanted a dog knows that nothing quite compares to the love and friendship a waggy tailed canine companion can bring. But new research and a separate new meta study have both recently shown that our faithful friends bring us something else too – improved survival rates following heart attack or stroke.
It has long been known that owning a pet – in particular a cat or a dog – is associated with lower levels of stress and loneliness, lower levels of depression, lower blood pressure and higher levels of physical exercise  – well, physical exercise for dog owners at least. You won’t find cats giving us much exercise, unless of course we’re trying to give them a pill, at which point they can put us through paces an Olympian would struggle to match.
However, this new research, published in Circulation: Cardiovascular Quality and Outcomes, the journal of the American Heart Association, is the first to explicitly link cardiovascular survival outcomes with dog ownership.
Dog Ownership Improves Cardiovascular Survival Rates
The Swedish study examined the survival outcomes post-heart attack and post-stroke of 182,000 patients aged between 40 and 85 from the Swedish National Patient register, or more specifically, the 6% of those heart attack victims who own a dog and the 5% of stroke victims who own a dog .
They found that the risk of death following hospitalization for a heart attack was 33% lower for dog owners who lived alone, and 15% lower for dog owners who lived with family, than it was for those who did not own a dog. Similarly, the risk of death following hospitalisation for a stroke was 27% lower for dog owners who lived alone, and 12% lower for dog owners who lived with family, than for those who did not own a dog .
In other words, survival rates for both conditions were markedly better for dog owners once discharged from hospital, and in particular for dog owners who live alone.
Researchers rightly point out that although this is highly suggestive of a positive correlation between dog ownership and survival rates, it does not in itself prove a causal link. However, as Tove Fall D. V. M., professor at Uppsala University in Sweden, concludes, “The results of this study suggest positive effects of dog ownership for patients who have experienced a heart attack or stroke.” 
Meanwhile, in the separate meta review, researchers looked at 10 different studies, involving 3.8 million people. The review concluded that compared to those who do not own a dog, dog owners have a 24% lower risk of all-cause mortality, and a significant 65% lower risk of death following a major cardiovascular event such as a heart attack or stroke .
What Does This Tell Us About Dog Ownership?
Well, general fitness levels obviously play a role both in the prevention of cardiovascular disease and in recovery from an event. There is much evidence to suggest that dog owners experience more day to day physical activity than non dog owners . Dogs of all shapes and sizes need regular exercise and it’s up to their humans to facilitate that – and dogs are a great motivator. When it’s cold, dark, wet and windy outside, most of would much rather stay on the couch, but we’ll still get up and take the dog out, because that’s what we do.
We also know that loneliness, depression and social isolation have a marked negative impact on cardiovascular health and outcomes . This could be why dog ownership in the research mentioned above appears to affect survival outcomes for owners living alone even more than for those living with family. Research shows that dog ownership helps to decrease isolation and lifts mood . Where the dog is the owner’s main source of company and companionship, he or she is clearly filling a hugely important role in that person’s life – not only psychologically but now, it transpires, physically too.
Of course, we cannot prescribe dog ownership as a therapy for those recovering from cardiovascular events, as the dog’s welfare is paramount, and it would be totally unethical to put dogs and people together in a less than willing relationship. Nobody would suggest such a thing.
However, these findings taken together do add another nuance to our understanding of the human-dog relationship. We always knew that dogs bring us such joy, and ever year the evidence stacks up more and more that there truly are health benefits to dog ownership too.
SF Source Wake Up World Nov 2019