(CN) – Dog owners have a significantly lower risk of death from cardiovascular disease and other causes, according to a report by a team of Swedish scientists that gives new meaning to the expression “man’s best friend.”
The findings, published Friday in the journal Scientific Reports, are based on data from more than 3.4 million Swedes between the ages of 40 and 80. The team followed up 12 years later to determine how many of the subjects had died, and from what causes.
People living alone fared the best, as owning a dog decreased their risk of death by 33 percent and their likelihood of a cardiovascular-related death by 36 percent, when compared to single individuals who do not have a pet. Single dog owners also had an 11 percent lower risk of suffering a heart attack.
Dog owners in multi-person households, on the other hand, had an 11 percent lower of death and their chances of a cardiovascular-related death were 15 percent lower. Their risk of heart attack was not reduced.
“A very interesting finding in our study was that dog ownership was especially prominent as a protective factor in persons living alone, which is a group reported previously to be at higher risk of cardiovascular disease and death than those living in a multi-person household,” said co-author Mwenya Mubanga, a doctoral student at Uppsala University in Sweden.
“Perhaps a dog may stand in as an important family member in the single households.”
A single dog owner is likely the only person who regularly walks and interacts with her pet, which could contribute to these individuals’ reduced risk of cardiovascular disease and death, according to the study.
Owners of hunting breeds, such as retrievers, scent hounds and terriers, were the most protected from cardiovascular disease and death.
While the link between dog ownership and a reduced risk of death from any cause is clear, the findings do not reveal the specific factors on why or how.
“These kind of epidemiological studies look for associations in large populations but do not provide answers on whether and how dogs could protect from cardiovascular disease,” said senior author Tove Fall, an associate professor at Uppsala University. “We know that dog owners in general have a higher level of physical activity, which could be one explanation to the observed results.”
The characteristics of people who decide to get a dog could also be influencing the findings.
“There might also be differences between owners and non-owners already before buying a dog, which could have influenced our results, such as those people choosing to get a dog tending to be more active and of better health,” Fall said.
“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.”