While the study stops short of determining a direct "causal effect" between dog ownership and lower heart disease, it indicates that dog owners may have better health because they stay active by walking their pets, even in bad weather. It's possible that people who choose to own dogs may simply be more active and in better health to begin with, say the authors.
According to the study, single dog owners had greater protection from cardiovascular disease and death because they were the sole person interacting with their pet as opposed to couples and families.
The protective effect was especially prominent for people living alone, who have been found to have a higher risk for early death than those who live with other people. Solo residents had a 33% reduction in mortality and an 11% cut in the risk of heart attack compared to people who lived alone without a dog.
Owners of hunting breeds, such as retrievers, scent hounds and terriers, were the most protected from cardiovascular disease and death.
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The study looked at over 3.4 million Swedish individuals between the ages of 40 and 80 sampled from a national database and the Swedish Twin Register over a 12-year study period.
"Other explanations include an increased well-being and social contacts or effects of the dog on the bacterial microbiome in the owner".
"The responsibilities associated with dog ownership impose mandatory daily exercise - a schedule which can not be impacted by adverse weather conditions, personal commitments or mood swings", Wolf-Klein said. The study excluded the very young due to their low likelihood of developing CVD and the very elderly for their low odds of owning a dog.
Fall plans on digging into how exactly dogs might affect their owners in future studies, including evaluating how the bacteria in a dog owner's gut might differ from people living in a pet-free house, and how a canine medical crisis might affect an owner's health. "Thanks to the population-based design, our results are generalizable to the Swedish population, and probably also to other European populations with similar culture regarding dog ownership", Fall concluded in the statement.
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While the research was carried out in Sweden, Fall does believe it may also apply to other countries, including the US, since popular breeds and people's attitudes toward dog care are similar. After all, a dog must be walked, so dog owners walk more than non-dog owners.
Instead, dog owners may just be healthier to begin with.
Experts in the United States agreed that the findings made sense.
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