February is American Heart Month, a time for medical practitioners, health care professionals and the American Heart Association (AHA) to publicly promote habits and behaviors that can benefit heart health. It’s no coincidence that in the same month of love, PetSmart and PetSmart Charities are hosting a National Adoption Weekend from Feb. 17-19. The reason behind this is because both scientific and anecdotal evidence shows that there is a correlation between pet ownership and maintaining a healthy heart.
Your Pet Has Your Heart
Dogs particularly are thought to help keep their owners healthy, partly because of the daily walks that dog ownership demands. But that cannot be the only reason why dog ownership has cardiovascular benefits – many owners do not even walk their own dogs, or do so rarely. Here are some of the other fundamental ways in which dogs, and other domestic pets, are thought to improve heart health:
- According to the AHA, owning a pet can lead to modestly lower cholesterol and triglyceride levels. It is not entirely understood how this occurs, but it has been statistically noted. Pet ownership can help ward off heart disease and improve the health and outlook for patients already suffering from some degree of heart disease. Pet-owners also generally have a lower incidence of obesity.
- Even just petting or stroking a dog or cat briefly has been shown to lower blood pressure. A Harvard Health blog post cited a 2001 study that analyzed 48 people with high blood pressure and high-stress jobs who agreed to adopt a dog or a cat if so asked. Half did, and six months later those who adopted a dog or cat had significantly lower blood pressure when stressed.
- Again, though it is not fully understood why, according to the AHA, pet owners are statistically more likely to survive heart attacks.
- Pets are social magnets, helping us to connect with other people, which can also be good for the heart and for health generally. Pets may also elevate their owners’ mood generally, through the good feelings derived from bonding and companionship. But it is also thought that pets bring their owners joy through the release of endorphins and other hormones which trigger a sense of well-being, and the suppression of stress hormones such as cortisol and epinephrine.
Although they acknowledge the health benefits of adopting an animal, most medical professionals stop short of recommending that people seek out pet ownership as a way to improve health. As the AHA website carefully states that people should not adopt a pet only to reduce their risk of heart disease. The primary purpose of pet adoption or rescue should be to provide the pet a loving home and to derive enjoyment from the pet.
If You Can’t Adopt, You Can Still Connect
If you can’t adopt for some reason – allergies, housing restrictions, reluctance to commit – consider the following alternatives:
- Visit with therapy animals. Many retirement homes, colleges, and universities and other institutions encourage visits from therapy dogs and other animals. While possibly short-lived, the benefits of an animal visit are immediate.
- Watch cute animal videos on the Internet. That may sound silly, but many people swear by this method for a daily dose of cheer.
- Pet sit for a friend or walk an elderly neighbor’s dog. You perform a good deed and benefit from the stress-busting heart health benefits that go along with pet ownership – with less of the responsibility.
- Offer temporary foster care to a kitten or puppy.
In conjunction with good nutrition and exercise, all of these activities could impact your heart health in positive ways. If you’re simply on the fence about adopting a forever pet, these baby steps may also prepare you for permanent pet ownership in a low to no-pressure way. Which is also good for your heart health.