Dogs can become a beloved part of any family, but boy do they take a lot of work. They cost a lot to feed and care for, they require lots of walks, and they're quite a handful when they get ahold of your stuff.
But there are also a lot of health benefits to having a dog. The most common cause of death worldwide is heart attack and stroke, and studies conducted on dog owners have seen a noticable decrease in early death rates. A new study published in the American Heart Associations Circulation journal and conducted by Indiana University that systemically reviewed the findings of 4 million people across the United States, Canada, Scandinavia, New Zealand, Australia and the United Kingdom that have been conducted over the course of 70 years.
Their findings? People who had dogs were 24% less likely to suffer from an early death.
"Our analysis found having a dog is actually protective against dying of any cause," said Mount Sinai endocrinologist Dr. Caroline Kramer, lead author the study and an assistant professor in the division of endocrinology and metabolism at the University of Toronto. "Dog ownership was associated with a 24% reduction in all cause mortality."
A separate study of more than 336,000 Swedish men and women, also published Tuesday in "Circulation," also found people who owned dogs had better health outcomes after suffering a major cardiovascular event such as heart attack or stroke. "For those people, having a dog was even more beneficial. They had a 31% reduced risk of dying from cardiovascular disease," Dr. Kramer said.
The biggest benefits are found among people who live alone. Loneliness and social isolation is often linked with early death and people who live alone and have suffered a heart attack have a 33% lower risk of death if they had a dog to take care of and keep company. For stroke survivors, the rate is 27%.
"We know that loneliness and social isolation are strong risk factors for premature death and our hypothesis was that the company of a pet can alleviate that," said study author Tove Fall, an associate professor of epidemiology at Uppsala University in Sweden.
"Single owners have to do all the dog walks and we know that physical activity is important in rehabilitation after a myocardial infarction or stroke," Fall added.
It should be noted that both studies are observational, meaning that there aren't direct connections between pet ownership and longer life expectancy. A randomized clinical trial would be needed to positively confirm this.
"Is it the dog or is it the behaviors?" Dr. Martha Gulati, who is the editor-in-chief of CardioSmart.org, the American College of Cardiology's patient education platform, asked. "Is it because you're exercising or is it because there is a difference in the type of person who would choose to have a dog versus somebody who would not? Are they healthier or wealthier? We don't know those things."
"While these non-randomized studies cannot 'prove' that adopting or owning a dog directly leads to reduced mortality, these robust findings are certainly at least suggestive of this," said Dr. Glenn Levine, chair of the writing group of the American Heart Association's scientific statement on pet ownership. Regardless, dogs have been known to decrease stress and promote relaxation and impact nearly all stages of our lives.
"They influence social, emotional and cognitive development in children, promote an active lifestyle, and have even been able to detect oncoming epileptic seizures or the presence of certain cancers," the CDC said.