An Evidence-Based Wellness Program: Pets

Employer wellness programs are all the rage lately, even though solid evidence for sustainable improvements in health is lacking for most of these programs. For a more robust option, let’s consider the benefits of pets, especially dogs. The American Heart Association has just published an exhaustive review of the scientific evidence, concluding that owning a pet, particularly a dog, may reduce your risk of heart disease.

The strongest study reviewed was a randomized, controlled trial of the effect of adopting a dog on blood pressure. In people with borderline hypertension who wanted dogs, those who adopted a dog lowered their blood pressure and were less likely to see their blood pressure and heart rates rise in response to stress. Although the reviewers found evidence for benefits from owning other types of pets, evidence was strongest for dog owners.

In a nutshell, here are some of the heart health benefits associated with pet ownership:

  • Pet ownership may lead to lower blood pressure.
  • Of all pets, dogs appear most likely to help people get more physically active.
  • Dog walking — not just pet or dog ownership — is associated with lower rates of obesity.
  • Pet ownership may be associated with better cardiovascular responses to stress.
  • Pet ownership (especially dogs) may be linked to better survival in people with established heart disease.

Glenn Levine, who led the committee that prepared the review, noted that owning a pet was certainly no guarantee of cardiovascular health. “If someone adopts a pet, but still sits on the couch and smokes and eats whatever they want and doesn’t control their blood pressure, that’s not a prudent strategy to decrease their cardiovascular risk.” But he went on to say, “There are plausible psychological, sociological, and physiological reasons to believe that pet ownership might actually have a causal role in decreasing cardiovascular risk.”

So, if you want a friend who just might help you live longer, your dog might be more reliable than your employer.

Click here to read more in This Week and click here to read the AHA Scientific Statement.

Dog’s Love image © Noël Zia Lee / Wikimedia

Subscribe by email to follow the accumulating evidence and observations that shape our view of health, obesity, and policy.