(Corrects name of journal in paragraph 4 and in source link at end of story, and corrects paragraph 3 to indicate that Dr. Medina-Inojosa was not the senior author, in story originally posted Sept 13)

By Saumya Joseph

(Reuters Health) – No one can say if it’s the walks or the unconditional love, but there’s something about owning a dog that goes hand in hand with better heart health, suggests a study in eastern Europe.

Researchers examined more than 1,700 adults in the Czech Republic and found that dog owners tended to be younger, female and more likely to smoke than people with different pets or with no companion animals. Yet the dog owners were also more active, had better levels of blood fat and blood sugar, and were less likely to be obese, giving them an overall better cardiovascular health profile than the rest.

“If you’re thinking about getting a pet, getting a dog will likely help you with your cardiovascular health goals. This should be a point that will help you make that decision,” said coauthor Dr. Jose Medina-Inojosa of the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota.

Dog owners are known to engage in more physical activity and are more likely to have regular exercise habits than those without dogs, the study authors note in Mayo Clinic Proceedings: Innovations, Quality and Outcomes. These benefits were recognized in a 2013 statement from the American Heart Association (AHA) that linked owning a pet, especially a dog, with lower risk of heart disease.

For the current study, Medina-Inojosa and his team analyzed data on men and women in the city of Brno who were participating in a larger, long-term study. None of them had heart disease when they were recruited in 2013-2014, at ages 25 to 64.

Of the nearly 42% of the participants with a pet, more than half owned a dog.

After accounting for age, sex, and educational level, the team found that dog ownership was associated with a higher total cardiovascular health score when compared either to those with other types of pets or those without pets.

Except for smoking, the researchers note, the dog owners were more likely to engage in heart-healthy behaviors, including exercising and eating a healthy diet, and were more likely to have ideal blood sugar levels. They also tended to have higher levels of healthy HDL cholesterol and lower prevalence of diabetes.

The owners of other pets, such as cats or horses, also had higher cardiovascular health scores compared to those with no pets, but this difference disappeared after adjusting for age, sex and educational levels.

The study was not designed to determine whether or how having a dog might directly affect markers of heart disease risk, or whether healthier people are more likely to have dogs.

One limitation, the authors acknowledge, is that they looked at participants’ heart health at one point in time and did not have data on how long they had owned their pets.

Even so, Medina-Inojosa said in a phone interview, it’s possible that “owning a pet is going to give you an overall sense of wellbeing. You start making better decisions about your food, maybe smoking less, maybe walking a little more, getting up from bed, and that makes your diet fall into place and then your lab values tend to just fall behind.”

The fact that participants resided in Central Eastern Europe, where smoking rates are among the highest in the world, could explain the large number of smokers in the study, he noted.

The daily exercise of providing for the dog and taking it out for walks is what promotes better health and not just owning one, Angela Curl of the Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, said in a phone interview.

Curl, who wasn’t involved in the study, believes more research is required to see if owning a pet leads to improved cardiovascular health.

“I think we can put more faith in the result if they are studying the change over time. It’s hard to know whether or not people were different before they own pets versus after they own pets, whether or not obtaining an animal made a difference for them,” she said.

SOURCE: https://bit.ly/2PeZKAh Mayo Clinic Proceedings: Innovations, Quality and Outcomes, online August 23, 2019.