During February, thoughts of love and relationships are in the air as Valentine’s Day approaches. Chocolate hearts pepper both television ads and candy bowls for good reason: The heart has long been a symbol of many forms of love. Physiology also uses the heart as a symbol—one of health. Unfortunately, heart disease remains the No. 1 cause of death in the U.S. In the spirit of the season, let’s talk about how more pet love can make our hearts healthier.
Studies have shown that romantic love can be good for your heart, but sharing love with man’s—or woman’s—best friend has also been linked to a healthier cardiovascular system. Dogs—furry, four-legged and faithful—have pawed their way into our hearts and science by helping us to live healthier lives. Whether single or married, dog owners often have lower blood pressure than non-pet owners regardless of the person’s weight. Dog owners potentially get more exercise than those with other pets or no pets at all. Simply walking a dog is a form of exercise that’s good for not only your heart, but also your gut, bones and brain.
Feeling less stressed after a long day? Thank Fido! Having a dog changes your body’s response to stressful situations and helps keep your blood pressure from climbing too high in response to stress. Don’t forget to pet your pooch and talk to him or her, too. Researchers have found petting and talking to your dog also lowers blood pressure. Decreased blood pressure means there is less chance that you’ll have a heart attack or a stroke. Even if you’ve already had a heart attack, don’t give up hope; dog owners live longer than those who do not have a pet.
You may already consider your dog a cherished companion, but maybe now you’ll add “health care provider” to the description. Give your furry pal some love and thanks for contributing to your heart health.
Jessica C. Taylor, PhD, is a cardiovascular physiologist who manages projects for a contract biomedical research organization and teaches undergraduate biology at Centre College in Kentucky. She loves all animals, but is particularly partial to dogs, cats, pigs and monkeys for their contributions to heart health, both socially and through biomedical research.