Monday, July 8, 2013

Need an excuse to adopt a puppy?


A week before last Christmas, we adopted a perfect little Havanese puppy and named him Tolstoi. Six months later, he is close to the center of our universe and has ushered another fulfilling dimension into our lives. So far, the transformation of our quality of life has been tremendous. We find excuses to explore new places in and around our community, people on the street stop and talk with us, and our previous marathon work sessions have been broken up by tug-of-war breaks.

While our wonderfully positive experiences with Tolstoi feel special, and unique to our family, they are quite common for dog-owners. Many people we talk to report that they can’t imagine living their life without a dog because of how much “plain ol’ goodness” it brings to their daily routine. In fact, various media sources have boasted of the many health benefits that come with dog-ownership.

Much to our dismay, many of these benefits have been loosely supported by science and are so far not well understood. As a consequence, Dr. Greg Levine and his colleagues released a paper last week discussing the cardiovascular benefits of having a dog on behalf of the American Heart Association.

In this article, they discuss that cardiovascular illness is the leading cause of death in the United States, which is most effectively prevented by a healthy diet and consistent exercise.  Unfortunately, widespread interventions that aim directly at reducing cardiovascular illness in the United States by promoting healthy eating and exercise are generally unsuccessful. Thus, physicians, policy-makers, research scientists and other dedicated groups have looked for less direct and somewhat unconventional methods of reducing cardiovascular risk. So far, owning a dog is a big one.

What we know, is that if you take a group of adults and randomly assign half of them to adopt a dog, while the other half are placed on a waiting list for a dog, those who got a dog initially show improvements in their systolic blood pressure 2 and 5 months later from when they started and compared with those on the waitlist. They also found that having a dog lowers cholesterol among men (sorry ladies). In some studies surveying both dog-owners and dog-less individuals, they found that people who have dogs are less likely to smoke and have lower triglycerides (a type of fat found in blood that increases risk for stroke and heart attack). Similarly, having a dog may reduce the risk for heart disease by mitigating the impact of stress. A few recent studies have found that individuals who have dogs show smaller increases in blood pressure and heart rate during standard laboratory stress tests than dog-less individuals. Thus, their biological stress response system may be more adept at dealing with stress without straining the heart. Finally, having a dog reduces mortality rates for individuals who have already been diagnosed with a heart disease.

But why does having a dog reduce these physiological risk factors for heart disease?

The answer, so far, is simple. People who have a dog are 54% more likely to meet the recommended amount of physical activity. In fact, the average dog-less person spends 168 minutes per week walking, while the average dog-owner spends 300 minutes per week walking. So, some of the benefits are closely tied with physical activity. People who have dogs walk them, and people who don’t, well… don’t. For some dog-owners, this means they have an excuse to walk to a nearby park after dinner, go running, or take a Saturday morning hike. For others, this means that they have a companion and some protection if they need to go somewhere in their not-so-safe neighborhood after dark.

What’s interesting is that while dog-owners are generally more physically active than their dog-less neighbors, the research shows similar obesity rates between the two groups. However, there is one very important exception to this: children who live in households with a dog are less likely to be obese than their friends who were raised in dog-less homes.

In general, the list of what we don’t know on the health benefits of having a dog is longer than what we do. Here, the focus has been specifically on heart disease but I would imagine that having a pet has a number of other benefits as well. For example, having a puppy forces structure on the daily routine and increases your mood through positive affect (smiling, laughing, playing). Both of these are associated with increases in mental and physical health. Finally, increases in physical activity through dog-walking are also associated with improvements in your social life because you meet and make friends with more people in your community.

So, if you are chronically struggling to keep risk for heart disease low in your home, perhaps adding a small, fluffy companion to your family can help. If you can’t handle that kind of commitment yet, consider volunteering to regularly walk the dog of a friend or family member.


Levine, G. N., Allen, K., Braun, L. T., Christian, H. E., Friedmann, E., Taubert, K. A., ... & Lange, R. A. (2013). Pet Ownership and Cardiovascular Risk A Scientific Statement From the American Heart Association. Circulation,127(23), 2353-2363.

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