Pet owners will often swear their beloved pooch or moggie does wonders for their wellbeing, and now we have empirical proof. A new study has found dog ownership is linked to improved heart health for humans. This is an important finding, given heart disease is the leading cause of death globally.
While the new study focuses on dogs and heart disease, it raises the broader question of how pet ownership affects human longevity. Can pets create health in humans?
A study known as the “blue zone” study has focused on factors affecting longevity for over a decade. Nine factors have been identified as increasing lifespan in the communities studied, and many of these factors are increased by pets.
Much of the focus on pets providing health has been on dog walking. But anyone who owns a pet knows there are numerous incidental physical activities associated with pet ownership – like getting up to feed their pet; ensuring the pet’s food and water is available; and looking after pet “accommodation”.
Reducing prolonged sitting and increasing incidental domestic activity have both been shown to be protective with regard to health risks.
Pets provide nudges to everyday movement.
You must get out of bed so you can feed me. Unsplash/anthony de kroon, CC BY
2. Having a sense of purpose
At the very simplest level, pets can provide “a reason to get up in the morning”.
This has been shown to be particularly important for groups at risk of, or experiencing, poorer health – including the aged, people with long-term mental illness and chronic diseases (including youth).
Our (as-yet-unpublished) research interviewing older people about the impact of their pets on health has found pets could be protective against suicide. Pets are seen as reliant on their owners functionally (“need me to feed them or they will die”) and emotionally (“he would pine for me terribly”).
Feeling unneeded and of no use has been identified as a key risk factor in suicide.
3. Regular destressing activities
Interaction with pets can reduce stress. There is evidence petting an animal may reduce heart rates, and co-sleeping with pets may improve some people’s quality of sleep.
It’s in the area of relationships (three of the nine “blue zone” factors) that pets may have their most powerful role in longevity.
Pets can act as a social catalyst, promoting social connections, conversations, and even leading to the development of networks of practical support (a form of commitment).