Can Your Pet Help Keep You Slim?

Boomer Man Walking his Dog
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Those of us with pets already know that there are tremendous benefits involved, both for them and for us. But did you also know that the benefits of having a pet include improved overall health and well-being as well as prevention and treatment of obesity? Several studies have now documented that having a furry friend around can bring a number of health benefits not just to the pet but also to the human side of the equation!

Cardiovascular Benefits

In 2013, the American Heart Association (AHA) released a scientific statement delineating the many cardiovascular benefits of having a pet. These include maintenance of heart health as well as reduction of risk factors that result in cardiovascular disease.

For example, the AHA noted that some studies have shown that having a pet can lower blood pressure. Other studies have looked at cholesterol levels in people who have dogs as pets, and have found that dog caretakers have more favorable cholesterol profiles than those who do not have a dog. Research has also found that people who do not have a dog are more likely to use tobacco products (including smoking cigarettes) than are those who do have a dog.

Still, more studies have found that having a pet reduces reactivity to stress, and that people with pets (including cats, dogs, and even fish, goats, chimpanzees and snakes) have lower resting heart rates and blood pressure at baseline, indicating a more relaxed baseline state.

Thus, having a pet does seem to have benefits in terms of reducing common risk factors for heart disease and stroke, such as tobacco use, high blood pressure, stress and high cholesterol.

Further, having a pet even seems to be of benefit to those who already have heart disease. In one study, having a dog was strongly linked to decreased mortality from heart disease, showing that a person who has a dog is four times more likely to survive a heart attack over the long run than one who does not have a dog!

Pets and Physical Activity

Another way in which pets improve cardiovascular health as well as treat and prevent obesity is through greater physical activity. Most studies have shown that people who care for pets tend to be more physically active, and, of all pets (horses and other equines not included here), dogs seem to encourage the greatest amount of physical activity. Anyone who has or has interacted with a dog can confirm this!

One study from Canada found that dog caretakers walked an average of 300 minutes per week, compared with 168 minutes per week for those without a dog, and the dog caretakers noted the obligation to care for their dogs as being a key motivator driving this difference.

Other studies have looked at the change in human behavior after adopting a pet, and have found that people who adopted a dog from an animal shelter had a significant increase in their level of physical activity, mainly in the form of more frequent and longer recreational walks.

Pets and Obesity

Several studies have shown that having pets can play an important role in both preventing and treating obesity.

Companion animals can provide encouragement and motivation to complete a weight loss program, for instance. And having a dog at one’s side can help with concerns over neighborhood safety that might otherwise prevent a daily walk.

Other studies have shown that dog walking, in particular, seems to be associated with a lower incidence of obesity. In one large study, dog walkers were far more likely to meet the national recommendations for moderate-to-vigorous physical activity than those who did not walk their dog or did not have a dog at all. And this results in a the lower body mass index (BMI), with lower rates of overweight and obesity, for dog walkers. Other studies have found that when people with dogs start walking with their pet, both the dog and the “dog parent” lose weight!

Sources:

Levine GN, Allen K, Braun LT, Christian HE, et al. Pet ownership and cardiovascular risk: a scientific statement from the American Heart Association. Circulation. Published online May 9, 2013.

Friedmann E, Thomas SA. Pet ownership, social support, and one-year survival after acute myocardial infarction in the Cardiac Arrhythmia Suppression Trial (CAST). Am J Cardiol 1995;76:1213-17.

Friedmann E, Katcher AH, Lynch JJ, Thomas SA. Animal companions and one-year survival of patients after discharge from a coronary care unit. Public Health Rep 1980;95:307-12.

Brown SG, Rhodes RE. Relationships among dog ownership and leisure-time walking in Western Canadian adults. Am J Prev Med 2006;30:131-36.

Cutt HE, Knuiman MW, Giles-Corti B. Does getting a dog increase recreational walking? Int J Behav Nutr Phys Act 2008;5:17.

Coleman KJ, Rosenberg DE, Conway TL, Sallis JF, et al. Physical activity, weight status, and neighborhood characteristics of dog walkers. Prev Med 2008;47:309-12.

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