The Health Benefits of Owning a Dog: Healthier, Longer Life

IIn case you need another reason to cuddle your pup: According to a new study of more than 3.4 million people, owning a dog is linked to living a longer life. The research, published in Scientific reportsis the latest in a growing body of research suggesting that canine companions might be good for human health, particularly for people who live alone.

To study the link between dogs and longevity, researchers at Uppsala University in Sweden looked at national registries of Swedish men and women aged 40 to 80. They focused on 3.4 million people with no history of cardiovascular disease in 2001 and tracked their health. records – as well as whether they have registered as a dog owner – for around 12 years. Dog ownership records are mandatory in Sweden and every hospital visit is recorded in a national database.

They found that dog owners had a lower risk of death from cardiovascular disease than people who did not report owning a dog, as well as a lower risk of death from other causes. This was true even after adjusting for factors such as smoking, body mass index and socioeconomic status.

The protective effect was particularly strong for people living alone, who are at higher risk of premature death than those living with other people. People living alone with a dog had a 33% reduced risk of death and an 11% reduced risk of cardiovascular disease compared to people living alone without a dog.

The study, whose sample size is hundreds of times larger than any other study on this topic, was not designed to show a causal relationship between dog ownership and a reduction in risk of death or cardiovascular disease, nor to determine why these factors may be linked. It’s possible that people who choose to own dogs are simply more active and healthier, the authors say.

But it’s also possible — and very likely, according to lead author Tove Fall, a veterinarian and associate professor of epidemiology — that caring for a dog inspires people to stay active and adopt a healthier lifestyle. “I have met many owners who are convinced that their pet has been instrumental to them, often in terms of social support,” says Fall. “As a dog owner, I also find that the people I meet on walks are often other dog owners, especially in bad weather.”

MORE: Science Says Your Pet Is Good for Your Mental Health

Another possible explanation, she adds, could be the dog’s effect on its owner’s microbiome. Other studies suggest that growing up with a dog in the house can reduce allergies and asthma in children, and Fall says pets can provide immune-boosting benefits to adults as well. Studies have also suggested that dog owners have lower stress reactivity and faster blood pressure recovery after stressful events.

The study authors were also surprised to find that owners of dogs originally bred for hunting, such as terriers, retrievers and scent hounds, were the most protected against heart disease and death. Because these dogs generally need more exercise than other breeds, their owners may be more likely to meet physical activity guidelines, they say.

Fall says the study’s results can be generalized to the wider Swedish population, and probably to other European countries with similar living standards and dog ownership culture. They probably also apply to the United States, she says.

Scientists can’t say that having a dog will definitely help a person live longer, but Fall thinks it’s not a bad idea. “I think a pet brings a lot of joy and companionship to a home, so if a person has the ability to care for it, they definitely should,” she says. “Many studies show that dog owners get more physical activity, which could help prolong healthy lives.”


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