Why owning a dog could also be good for your heart

20 November 2017        

Category: Research

Dog owners have a lower risk of death due to cardiovascular disease according to a significant new international study. 

A picture of a dog hiding in a pile of leaves

New research from a team of scientists in Sweden has highlighted that being a dog owner is also good for your heart. 

The study from the team at Uppsala University looked at data from more than 3.4 million Swedes aged 40 – 80 in order to evaluate the association between dog ownership and long-term cardiovascular health.

Their findings, published recently in the journal Scientific Reports, suggest that dogs may be helpful in reducing cardiovascular risk in their owners principally by providing new social support and motivation for physical activity. 

Based on information from individuals from 2001 on who had no prior cardiovascular disease, the researchers analysed data from their 12 year follow-up health checks. This revealed a 33% reduction in the risk of death and an 11% reduction in the risk of cardiovascular disease when comparing dog owners with non-dog owning peers.  

Not just a man’s best friend

Explaining the findings lead author, Mwenya Mubanga, PhD at the Department of Medical Sciences and the Science for Life Laboratory at Uppsala University explained: “A very interesting finding in our study was that dog ownership was especially prominent as a protective factor in persons living alone, which is a group reported previously to be at higher risk of cardiovascular disease and death than those living in a multi-person household. 

“Perhaps a dog may stand in as an important family member in the single households. The results showed that single dog owners had a 33 percent reduction in risk of death and 11 percent reduction in risk of cardiovascular disease during follow-up compared to single non-owners. Another interesting finding was that owners to dogs from breed groups originally bred for hunting were most protected.")

Everyone can still benefit from ‘Walkies’ 

A picture of a dog with a ball in its mouth

Dr Mike Knapton, Associate Medical Director at the British Heart Foundation, added: “Owning a dog is associated with reduced mortality and risk of having heart disease. Previous studies have shown this association but have not been as conclusive - largely due to the population size studied here.

“This association between dog ownership and risk of death from cardiovascular disease, was identified from Swedish registers and the national dog ownership register.

We cannot infer a causal relationship, however, dog ownership is associated with increased physical activity, improved psycho-social wellbeing and socialisation, all of which are associated with reduced CVD mortality- so it is plausible the effect is mediated though these mechanisms. Alternatively it could be reverse causality - people who are fitter and more active are more likely to own a dog.

Dog ownership has many benefits, and we may now be able to count better heart health as one of them. However, as many dog owners may agree, the main reason for owning a dog is the sheer joy. Whether you’re a dog owner or not, keeping active is a great way to help improve your heart health.”

In Sweden, every person carries a unique personal identity number. Every visit to a hospital is recorded in national databases, accessible to researchers after de-identification of data. Even dog ownership registration has been mandatory in Sweden since 2001. 

The original paper ‘Dog ownership and the risk of cardiovascular disease and death – a nationwide cohort study’ is available on the Scientific Reports website.