You probably don’t need any convincing about how great dogs are, but science has now proved what we already knew to be true. Having a four-legged friend is a massive benefit to your health.
A recent Canadian study by the University of Toronto published in the journal Circulation shows dog owners had a 24% lower risk of dying early.
The review of the health benefits of man's best friend analysed research involving nearly four million people in the United States, Canada, Scandinavia, New Zealand, Australia and the United Kingdom.
"Our analysis found having a dog is actually protective against dying of any cause," said Mount Sinai endocrinologist Dr Caroline Kramer, the lead author of the study which reviewed almost 70 years of global research.
The news was even better for people who’ve already had a heart attack or stroke.
Heart attacks and stroke are the leading causes of death globally, according to the World Health Organisation.
“For those people, having a dog was even more beneficial,” said Kramer. “They had a 31% reduced risk of dying from cardiovascular disease.”
A separate study of more than 336 000 Swedish men and women, also published in the most recent issue of Circulation, showed that the benefit was highest for dog owners who lived alone.
Heart attack survivors living alone who owned dogs had a 33% lower risk of death compared to people who didn’t own a dog. Stroke survivors living alone had a 27% reduced risk of death.
"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 [heart attack] or stroke,” Fall added.
Studies also show petting dogs can reduce blood pressure, anxiety and depression.
"One study, my favourite, found just the effect of petting a dog can reduce your blood pressure as much as medication," Kramer said.
Other studies reviewed for the research project suggest that dogs provide companionship and affection that can reduce anxiety and depression, which according to Dr Martha Gulati, a dog owner and editor-in-chief of the American College of Cardiology's patient education platform, is especially important after a major illness, such as a heart attack or stroke.
"We know that if you have depression after a heart attack, you're more likely to have a poor outcome," Gulati said, which is one reason so many hospitals have begun using therapy dogs for cardiac patients.
She adds that a number of cardiologists believe in the benefits of dog ownership so much they’ll actually prescribe a dog for their patients, if they believe the person can appropriately care for a pet.
“I know a lot of my patients often say to me after they have a heart attack or stroke, ‘Can I even take care of a dog?’ They worry because they don't want to leave the dog alone if something happens to them,” Gulati said. “But if possible, I always encourage them to get a dog. Perhaps an older dog who needs to be rescued and not a puppy that will be harder to manage.”