Heart disease is the second leading cause of death in Canada, next to cancer. Some individuals are born with congenital heart disease, while others develop heart disease due to poor diet, lack of exercise, genetics and other unknown factors. For those not genetically pre-disposed, heart disease prevention is possible by making positive lifestyle changes, including diet and exercise and…. having a pet! Pets can actually decrease your risk for heart disease. According to the Canadian Animal Institute, approximately 41 per cent of Canadian households own dogs while 38 per cent own cats.
If you already own a pet, you understand the impact they have on your physical and emotional health. Have you ever wondered why you feel immediately happy and safe when you hug them? It has to do with something called Oxytocin, otherwise known as the “cuddle hormone” or the “love hormone.”
Pets have been used for years as therapy dogs in medical settings, which have proven to make patients feel better, both inside and out. Baylor College of Medicine concluded that there are “plausible psychological, sociological and physiological reasons to believe that pet ownership might actually have a causal role in decreasing cardiovascular risk.”
What is Heart Disease?
Also known as ischemic heart disease (IHD) or coronary heart disease, heart disease occurs when there is a build-up of plaque within the heart’s arteries, which could also result in a heart attack, heart failure, or even death. Having heart disease also leads to reduced blood flow to the heart, which has very serious consequences. Because pets have a calming effect, they can essentially improve blood pressure and decrease stress, ultimately decreasing the risk of heart disease.
What is Oxytocin and How is it Connected to Heart Disease?
Oxytocin is a hormone, which is secreted by the posterior lobe of the pituitary gland at the base of the brain. It makes us feel happy and trusting, which is why it’s sometimes referred to as the “cuddle hormone” or the “love hormone.” When you hug your pet, for example, your body releases oxytocin, which is why we immediately “feel good.” Based on a Swedish study conducted in the 80s, heart attack patients with pets lived longer than those who didn’t own one. In fact, another study showed that just petting one’s own dog had a direct impact on blood pressure – it reduced it, which is never a bad thing, especially for those with heart disease or cardiovascular issues.
How Do Pets Lower Your Risk of Heart Disease?
Much research has been done on the relationship between pets and physical and emotional health, and the conclusion simply is, pets make us happier! Other reasons why having pets may reduce your risk of heart disease include:
- They get you moving! Dogs need to be walked several times a day and those without dogs may not otherwise get this daily exercise;
- They lower stress levels, which consequently lowers heart rate and blood pressure. Stress (and anxiety) has been shown to contribute to heart disease. Read our previous blog: How is Anxiety Connected to Heart Disease? ;
- They cause the body to release oxytocin; and
- They improve overall mental health and wellness.
Pets Increase Survival Rates in Heart Attack Patients
A Swedish study found that heart attack survivors who lived alone had a 33 per cent lower risk of death in the year after their heart attack if they had a dog, compared with non-dog owners. This is because pets can be a source of emotional support during recovery, and help owners stay mentally and physically active. Leading a sedentary and isolated/lonely lifestyle can contribute to heart disease – owning a pet can increase physical activity and improve emotional well-being.
What if You Can’t Own a Pet Full-time?
While owning a pet has proven benefits, many people are not in a situation to welcome a pet permanently into their home, for many reasons. But don’t worry! You can always visit a local pet shelter or spend time with friends who have pets. Or consider becoming a foster home for a pet.
It’s important to note that while pets may reduce your risk for heart disease, adopting a healthy diet and regular exercise is vital to maintaining optimal heart health. Speak to your doctor if you have concerns.