A hearty relationship
America's largest cardiovascular health organisation says owning a dog may protect you from heart disease.
The unusual message was contained in a scientific statement published on Thursday by the American Heart Association, which convened a panel of experts to review years of data on the cardiovascular benefits of owning a pet. The group concluded that owning a dog, in particular, was "probably associated" with a reduced risk of heart disease.
People who own dogs certainly have more reason to get outside and take walks, and studies show that most owners form such close bonds with their pets that being in their presence blunts the owners' reactions to stress and lowers their heart rate, said Dr Glenn N Levine, the head of the committee that wrote the statement.
But most of the evidence is observational, which makes it impossible to rule out the prospect that people who are healthier and more active in the first place are simply more likely to bring a dog or cat into their home.
"We didn't want to make this too strong a statement," said Dr Levine, a professor at the Baylor College of Medicine. "But there are plausible psychological, sociological and physiological reasons to believe that pet ownership might actually have a causal role in decreasing cardiovascular risk."
Americans keep roughly 70 million dogs and 74 million cats as pets.
The heart association publishes about three scientific statements each month, typically on more technical matters, but the group was prompted to take a stance on the pet issue by the growing number of news reports and medical studies linking pet ownership to better health.
Dr Levine noted that the more traditional methods of risk reduction for heart disease had proven effective, and that now was a good time to investigate alternative approaches. "We felt this was something that had reached the point where it would be reasonable to formally investigate," he said.