Video: Can Pets Help Your Heart Health?

Caring for a pet may help you get more active and lower your stress level, which can reduce your risk for heart disease. But there’s much more to heart health than simply having a four-legged friend.

Find out how having a pet may help your heart, and what you can do to make easy heart-healthy choices every day.

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Pets and Heart Health: Can Fido Really Keep You Healthy?

Millions of people in the United States have pets, with dogs and cats being the most popular companion animals. Most pet owners would probably agree that their pets make their lives better in many ways, but do pet owners really have a lower risk for heart disease?

“Owning a pet may lower the risk of heart disease in some people, but why this happens is not clear,” said Kathryn Berlacher, MD, MS, medical director of the Magee-Womens Heart Program, part of the UPMC Heart and Vascular Institute.

“It may be that healthier people choose to own pets, or that people who own pets like dogs tend to exercise more, which is beneficial to heart health, or that people who own pets are happier and thus less stressed, which is also beneficial to heart health,” Dr. Berlacher said.

The American Heart Association reports that some studies, which focused mostly on dog owners, show a small amount of data linking pet ownership to increased activity and lower cholesterol and triglyceride levels, which can lower the risk for heart disease. It’s also possible for some people to have lower blood pressure while petting dogs or cats, and blood pressure control plays an important part in heart health.

“When people are calm and happy, often times blood pressure is lower than when they are anxious or upset,” Dr. Berlacher said. “If petting a dog or cat makes you feel better or happy, there may be health benefits to doing it regularly.”

Pets and Regular Physical Activity

Regular physical activity plays a big part in overall health, including heart health. The American Heart Association recommends at least 30 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity, like walking, at least five days per week, and people who regularly walk their dogs may have an easier time reaching this goal.

Whether you’re a pet owner or not, regular physical activity can help lower your risk for heart disease by controlling your blood pressure, cholesterol, blood sugar levels, and weight. Try to be active on most days of the week by walking, biking, dancing, playing a sport, or whatever activity your doctor has recommended.

And, remember: Regular exercise will be good for your pet as well.

How Pets May Help You Manage Stress

Pets can offer opportunities for regular physical activity, companionship, and the chance to connect with others, all of which play a part in how well you cope with stress.

“I wouldn’t say that merely having a pet makes you more active, but for many people, a pet motivates you to get up and walk around the neighborhood,” Dr. Berlacher said.

“Taking care of a pet does require more activity, such as letting a dog outside or cleaning a litter box. Sometimes focusing on small activities such as these can aid in decreasing stress and anxiety about other parts of life,” she said.

You may find that walking your dog each morning helps get you on track for other healthy choices throughout your day. Your weekly visit to the dog park may help you meet new friends, who offer support. Moments spent petting your cat in the evening may help you unwind and get a better night’s sleep.

Healthy Choices Affect Your Heart Health

Whether you have a pet or not, healthy lifestyle choices play a big part in lowering your risk for heart disease. To help keep your risks low, you can:

  • Choose a heart-healthy diet
  • Get regular physical activity
  • Quit or avoid smoking and using tobacco products
  • Find healthy ways to cope with stress
  • Get regular checkups with your doctor to keep an eye on your blood pressure, cholesterol and blood sugar levels, weight, and other heart disease risk factors

For more information about heart-healthy lifestyle choices, visit the UPMC Heart and Vascular Institute or call 1-855-UPMC-HVI (876-2484).

About Heart and Vascular Institute

The UPMC Heart and Vascular Institute has long been a leader in cardiovascular care, with a rich history in clinical research and innovation. As one of the first heart transplant centers in the country and as the developer of one of the first heart-assist devices, UPMC has contributed to advancing the field of cardiovascular medicine. We strive to provide the most advanced, cutting-edge care for our patients, treating both common and complex conditions. We also offer services that seek to improve the health of our communities, including heart screenings, free clinics, and heart health education. Find an expert near you.