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Owning a Dog Lowers Your Risk of Death if You've Had Heart Problems, Study Shows

MIKE MCRAE
9 OCT 2019

A recent study conducted in Sweden found the risk of death for dog owners returning home from hospital after a stroke or heart attack was significantly lower than those who didn't come home to a face-licking ball of happiness.

 

Uppsala University researchers used a major national health register to come up with a list of nearly 182,000 patients aged 40 to 85 who'd suffered an acute heart attack between 2001 and 2012.

Similarly, they collected information on just over 150,000 patients the same age who'd had a stroke during that period.

Even following the best medical care, patient health can take a turn for the worse after returning home. In the year following their heart attack, roughly 30,000 of the patients had passed away.

Several years ago, the same Uppsala researchers found those who owned dogs generally had better cardiovascular health. Now it was time to see if that translated into improved odds of survival in the wake of a hospital stay.

Across the two groups of patient records they gathered for this new study, roughly one in twenty people had current records of dog ownership - as Sweden instated mandatory dog registration in 2001, the researchers used this measure as a proxy for identifying the dog owners in their sample.

By comparing the mortality rates between the dog owners and the rest of the patient sample, the team found not only were our canine companions correlated with better health, that improvement was a real life saver.

 

For those who lived alone with their pup, the risk of dying in the wake of a heart attack was a full third lower. Even if there was a partner or a child waiting at home, adding a dog to the mix improved odds by around 15 percent.

The results were similar for those who'd had a stroke; those living alone with a dog saw a 27 percent drop, while those with a dog in addition to a partner or child were 12 percent better off.

In addition to looking at the risk of death in the years following a heart attack, the team looked at the chances of a return to hospital for a repeat episode at least a month later. For dog owners, those measures dropped as well, by just under 10 percent.

We do need to put all this into context, however: the worst time for those who have survived a heart attack is the following month, with just over 1 percent of all patients having a repeat attack. This drops to just 0.3 percent after those first 30 days.

 

So, in absolute terms, the slightly improved odds for dog owners might not be all that huge.

The research stops short of an explanation of the results, but in light of previous studies on pet ownership our love of dogs could be doing wonders for our health in a variety of ways.

It's fair to say that, based on other studies, those who come home to an empty house are already at a bit of a health disadvantage. Whether it's a spouse or simply a caring circle of friends, good company is the secret to living a longer life.

"We know that social isolation is a strong risk factor for worse health outcomes and premature death. Previous studies have indicated that dog owners experience less social isolation and have more interaction with other people," says Uppsala University epidemiologist Tove Fall.

"Furthermore, keeping a dog is a good motivation for physical activity, which is an important factor in rehabilitation and mental health."

Having slightly better odds of avoiding a return to hospital (or worse!) after a cardiac event might be good reason for some to purchase a pup.

But the researchers make it clear that this should only be one factor when it comes making the decision on whether to become a responsible pet owner.

"Moreover, from an animal welfare perspective, dogs should only be acquired by people who feel they have the capacity and knowledge to give the pet a good life," says Fall.

This research was published in Circulation: Cardiovascular Quality and Outcomes.