The American Heart Association has reviewed medical studies and concluded that pet owners may have a reduced risk of heart disease.
"There was enough data to make us believe that there probably was some relationship between pet ownership and decreased cardiovascular risk," Dr. Glenn Levine, a professor at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, said in an interview this week.
In particular, dog ownership may help reduce cardiovascular risk, the group said.
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People with dogs often get more physical activity by walking them, agreed Dr. Chi-Ming Chow, a cardiologist at St. Michael’s Hospital in Toronto and a former dog owner.
"Having a dog is actually quite useful for someone's cardiovascular fitness," said Chow.
"Many of my patients say they often don't have the interest or time to exercise after a long day's work. Sometimes what we do actually is we suggest to them, gently, to have a pet such as a dog, so then they now really have to walk the dog, and it becomes part of their daily activity."
Those who walk at least 10,000 steps a day tend to live longer, feel better and have a much lower chance of having a heart attack, Chow said.
Owning pets may also be associated with lower blood pressure, cholesterol levels and a lower incidence of obesity, the heart association said.
Petting a dog may lower blood pressure
In one study from the University of South Carolina published in 1988, volunteers' blood pressure levels were lowest when petting a dog compared with talking to the animal or an experimenter, which suggested touch is an important component of the pet effect.
In 2008, Dr. Adnan Qureshi of the University of Minnesota Stroke Institute, analyzed data on 4,435 Americans aged 30 to 75.
Qureshi reported that cat owners showed a 30 per cent lower risk of death from heart attack compared with non cat-owners.
It's possible that the personality and lifestyle of cat owners contributed the result.
"Having a cat for some people, having a dog or even other pets such as birds or fish sometimes actually takes the edge off other stress, because it takes your mind away in terms of thinking about your work all the time or other things that stress you out," said Chow.
Penny Crowe calls her dog, Annie, her best friend since her husband died last year. Crowe said she finds it relieves stress to pet her yellow Labrador.
"When you stroke it, it releases stress," said Crowe, who always had a dog companion.
"Today I was not feeling 100 per cent, but I came out here and immediately I'm feeling much better," she said at Vancouver’s beachfront Jericho Park.
Another dog walker, Stuart, was out enjoying the beach with his pet, Sandy.
"I live near a beach, so in the morning we go up there with my dog and let her fish around in there. I wander around to get crabs," said Stuart, who had a stroke seven years ago.
"I've had a dog since I was three years old."