Our health-conscious society is always looking for ways to improve our longevity. The usual suggestions have to do with diet, exercise, stress reduction, and the use of various vitamins and other pharmaceutical agents. However, it is becoming clearer that a simple solution that may have a significant health benefit is pet ownership.
Back in late November or early December, I was contacted by a reporter who was preparing one of those articles we typically see as we approach the new year—articles that try to predict what will happen in the near future. The tack he was taking was to ask a number of people (mostly scientists and people in the arts) what they felt was going to be “The Next Great Thing” in their field. A physicist talked about a telescope that would work on gravity waves, a physician talked about drugs that could rearrange your DNA to deal with genetic-based illnesses, and a computer expert predicted that brain waves could be used to directly control machines. My suggestion was that we were learning enough about the health benefits of pet ownership, particularly dogs, that we might foresee in the near future that doctors might actually prescribe that people of particular ages, or with specific risk factors, should have a dog. I also suggested that if the health benefits were large enough, perhaps the cost of acquiring a pet might be covered by medical insurance plans.
Although I really had no expectation that physicians would be prescribing pet ownership this year or next, I felt that the proposal was sound. The idea of recommending a dog to improve health comes from a gradually evolving body of data: The American Heart Association produced a task force report which concluded that pet ownership improved health significantly (click here for more about that). At the time that the report was created, little was known about the magnitude of health improvement that pets bring; however, even small health benefits can have a massive effect on the cost of healthcare for the nation (click here for more about that).
Still, I knew that before doctors would prescribe pets, let alone medical plans decide to cover the cost, the size of the benefits would have to be shown to be quite large — for instance, evidence that pet ownership significantly increased an individual’s life span. Such evidence in the scientific literature was sparse at the time of my interview. Further, it is true that people who try to predict the future are more often than not wrong. Therefore, I was pleased when I encountered a report which suggested that things might be trending in a direction which supported my speculations.
Some new data collected by a team of researchers headed by Enayet Chowdhury at the Department of Epidemiology and Preventive Medicine at Monash University in Melbourne, Australia, demonstrates just how strong the benefits of pet ownership can be for a targeted population. These researchers decided to look at a particularly vulnerable group of people and at a specific health condition.
Cardiovascular disease accounts for about a third of total deaths around the world. Older individuals are the most susceptible, since approximately 90 percent of cardiovascular deaths occur in people aged 65 or older. So this research team looked at 4,039 individuals diagnosed with hypertension (consistently high blood pressure) and enrolled in the Second Australian National Blood Pressure Study. Hypertension is a major risk factor for heart attacks. The people who were studied were between 65 and 84, a high-risk age group. The question was whether pet ownership affected their survival. The individuals in this investigation were monitored for approximately 11 years. During that time, 24 percent of them died, and more than half of these (52 percent) died of cardiovascular problems.
The rate of pet ownership in this group of people was fairly typical, with 36 percent of them owning at least one pet at the time of the survey. When you look at individuals who have owned at least one pet at any time during their life, that number bumps up to 86 percent. The investigators noted that 45 percent of the group owned a dog, and 26 percent owned a cat.
It turns out that, consistent with other studies that have looked at health benefits of pets, the survival rate was higher in individuals who currently owned, or had previously owned, a pet. What I found most striking was the size of the effect that a pet had on survival: Over the 11-year period that these high-risk people were monitored, the survival rate was improved by 26 percent in the individuals who currently owned pet; even more surprising, it was improved by 22 percent in individuals who had previously owned a pet.
These are astonishingly high benefits, not too far from the levels of improvement that some pharmaceutical companies advertise for certain drugs used to control blood pressure and reduce cardiovascular fatalities.
In previous studies of the health benefits of pet ownership, it has been found that dogs are more helpful for positive health outcomes than cats; however, that was not the case in this study. It found approximately equal benefits if one’s pet was a cat or a dog. However, the researchers did find that the greatest improvement in survival was for individuals who owned dogs and took them out for walks frequently.
The authors of this study speculate that a dog, at least, promotes a more active lifestyle, and that an active lifestyle leads to better social interactions. Combined with the pet’s companionship, this can improve a person’s emotional state and reduce their stress levels. That is medically important, since stress contributes to the likelihood of cardiovascular problems.
Whatever the reasons, a 26 percent improvement in survival rate is certainly a significant result and, to my mind at least, suggests that prescribing a pet — at least for older individuals who might be at risk for cardiovascular problems — might be something physicians should consider.
Certainly, if these results are replicated in future studies, it might also make sense for medical health plans to consider covering part of the cost for acquiring a “prescription puppy.”