February is American Heart Month, a time for raising our awareness of issues that can prevent cardiovascular disease, the leading cause of death in the United States. It is a good time to check in with how well you are taking care of your heart with a healthy diet, adequate exercise, and your stress management strategies. These important lifestyle factors can have a major impact on your risks for cardiovascular disease.
One lifestyle change that you might find surprising may be to consider dog ownership. In fact, there have been a great number of scientific studies showing various ways that dogs may improve our health (check out Wileypup.com’s comprehensive guide), perhaps most notably, our heart health. Let’s take a closer look:
Improved Heart Rates and Blood Pressure
As we all know, heart rate and blood pressure are key indicators of our cardiovascular health. A less known fact is that our furry friends may actually have a direct impact on both. There just seems to be something about spending time with a loyal dog that helps to soothe the heart. And, the effect is more than just emotional, in fact, it is physiological as well.
And, you don’t have to actually have a dog of your own to experience these benefits. In fact, spending time with dogs at a rescue or by offering to pet sit a friend’s pooch may be another way to experience the heart calming presence of pets without the vet bills, food costs, and additional long-term responsibilities.
Increased Activity Levels
We all know we need to be getting up and active every day to promote a strong and healthy heart as well as maintain circulation, muscle tone, and bone density. However, sometimes it can be hard to stay motivated to take the best care of ourselves. Studies have shown that dog owners do get more exercise than their non-dog owning counterparts.
Perhaps this effect is because sometimes when we can’t do for ourselves, we find a way to do for those we love. Dogs depend on us to make sure their daily exercise needs are met, reminding us of the joys and importance of an active lifestyle.
Walk time! There are very few gyms or personal trainers that can motivate us to keep moving as much as those big hopeful eyes and wagging tail at the front door. For older dogs, sometimes it’s you that needs to motivate them but you’re invested in doing so which has reciprocal rewards.
Studies have shown that higher activity levels reduce obesity levels, another major risk factor for cardiovascular disease. By getting us off the couch, our canine companions offer multiple benefits when it comes to a healthy heart.
If you are interested in dog ownership but worry that you will not be able to provide for a high energy young dog, consider adopting an older dog. Many such pooches end up in rescue shelters each year, often due to unforeseen tragedies such as a death in the family, move, or illness of the owners. Senior dogs offer a lot of benefits. They tend to have lower exercise needs, are less demanding in terms of training and socialization, and tend to be a less labor-intensive investment with the same benefits of loyal companionship.
Improved Stress Management
How we manage stress in our daily lives plays a critical role in heart health, according to the American Heart Association. Those who have loved a dog already know that we tend to turn to them in times of emotional stress for that feeling of comfort, acceptance, and sense that everything is going to be okay. Turns out, research has shown that this is more than just a “feeling” and is actually a physiological response to spending time with dogs.
The human-dog bond promotes stress-relieving hormones such as oxytocin while reducing stress-related hormones such as cortisol. Research has shown that this hormonal response goes both ways. When we spend time petting a dog, both the human and canine hormone levels change for the better. What a win-win!
Better Recovery Rates After a Coronary Event
Finally, if you or someone you know has recently suffered from a cardiovascular event and is currently in recovery, some time with a dog may actually improve recovery outcomes.
Research has posited two main theories for why outcomes such as health indicators and even survival outcomes improve for dog owners. One is that dog owners seem to be better at sticking to a recovery protocol after a coronary event. The other may be a combination of the other heart-healthy benefits already mentioned in this article.
Either way, spending time with a dog may not only brighten your day, it may even improve your heart health. Just one more great excuse to enjoy the company of a dog.
Not Sure if Dog Ownership Is Right for You?
It is important to realize that dog ownership can come with its own stressors and is certainly not right for everyone. Before you adopt, be sure you have the time, budget, and space to bring a dog into your life.
And, you don’t have to own a dog in order to experience the benefits. Here are a few ways to bring dogs into your life without the commitment of dog ownership:
· Offer to pet-sit a friend or family member’s dog for the weekend.
· Get involved with animal rescue organizations to spend time with dogs who can really use your moral support and attention.
· Consider fostering a dog on a temporary basis if you want to give dog ownership a try before making up your mind.
· Contact a therapy dog group in your area to see if you can arrange a weekly visit with a volunteer pooch who has a great temperament for some quiet cuddles and lap time.
Author Bio: Sharon is a professional writer and received her M.S. in Science and Technology Studies from Virginia Tech and has worked as a professional dog trainer for over 10 years.