You dog! Two studies just published in the journal Circulation: Cardiovascular Quality and Outcomes came out quite positive “fur” dog owners. Both suggested that owning dogs is associated with a longer life. But before you go “bow wow wow yippie yo yippie yay” over these findings, make sure that you understand what they really mean.
One study was an analysis of data from the Swedish National Patient Register. The authors included Mwenya Mubanga, Liisa Byberg, Erik Ingelsson, and Tove Fall from Uppsala University, which is pronounced “Oops” (as in “Ooops, I did it again”) and “-ala.” Agneta Egenvall from the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences was also an author. The Register had 154, 617 patients from 40 to 85 years old who had had heart attacks (i.e., acute myocardial infarction), 5.7% of whom had owned dogs, and 154,617 who had had an ischemic stroke, 4.8% of whom had owned dogs between January 1, 2001 and December 31, 2012.
The results were sweet for the Swede dog owners. After suffering the heart attack, those living alone were 33% less likely to have died during the follow-up period if they had a dog versus didn’t have a dog. Those who had a partner or child (it is not clear how often the partner acted like a child) the likelihood was 15% lower for dog owners. For those who had suffered a stroke, the numbers were 27% and 12%, respectively.
The second study was a systematic review conducted by three researchers from Mount Sinai Hospital in Toronto, Canada. A systematic review is when you search for all published studies that address a particular question of interest and meet some specified criteria and pool the results together. The research team found ten scientific studies published from 1950 to May 24, 2019 that compared survival between those who owned dogs and those who did not. Pooling these studies together revealed that dog owners had a 24% lower likelihood of dying from anything, 65% lower likelihood of dying after a heart attack, and 31% lower likelihood of dying from cardiovascular-related issues during the period of time that they were followed. Of course, eventually death like taxes (well, actually not like taxes) is unavoidable. Dogs may be the Shiz-Tzu, but they cannot prevent death forever. These findings simply showed dog ownership to be associated with more people living beyond particular follow-up periods.
To the best of my knowledge, dogs did not directly fund either study. I asked several dogs for comments on the study. One of them growled. Another looked at me like I was a hamburger. A third seemed distracted.
Before you say that this proves that dogs can help you live longer, let’s press the paws button. All these studies show are associations, not cause-and-effect. There are many things that can be associated with both dog ownership and living longer. For example, if you have a very stressful and time-restricted life, you may not have the energy and bandwidth to own a dog. After all, you can’t just leave the apartment and house each morning and tell your dog, “OK, the keys to the car are over there, feel free to make yourself breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and oh, don’t watch too much Game of Thrones.” Similarly, owning a dog is not free and requires resources. Therefore, dog ownership can be a proxy for what resources you may have. It may mean that you have large enough living quarters and can afford everything that you need to provide your dog such as food, veterinarian visits, and very small tuxedos. After all, household income alone can not tell what resources someone may have. As you know, people may inherit lots of things.
Nevertheless, as I have written previously for Forbes, there are reasons why dog ownership may bring potential health benefits. They can provide companionship when you feel alone. They can get you moving around because, at the very least, they need to be walked. You don’t want to find out what happens when you never walk your dog. They can also facilitate social connections with other humans. For example, one of my medical school classmates once bought a dog specifically to meet women. By the way, it worked.
Here is a Harvard University report on how dogs can help:
Be careful though. Dogs cannot and should not be a replacement for human contact. It may be tempting to have someone around who won’t actively disagree with you, or at least not voice it. At least, you don’t hear when your dog mutters, “my owner is a bleeping idiot.” However, dogs cannot provide everything that humans can. Owning a dog should not mean that you can neglect other humans or treat them like dog poop.
Additionally, everyone is different and has different life situations and needs. Dog ownership is not for everyone. Like any relationship, both sides have to be vested in the relationship and not have hidden agendas. You actually have to want to care for your dog, which can be quite ruff if you are not into it. Your dog also should like you, and frankly not all dogs will. If your dog hates your guts, that can create some Real Housewives-like situations.
In the end, don’t be dogmatic about what observational studies like these two may suggest. Dogs can be so fetch, but they are not necessarily for everyone. A dog-human relationship is a two-way street. The Shania Twain song “(If You’re Not In It For Love) I’m Outta Here” applies here as well. Don’t just get a dog simply because you think a dog will help you live longer. That would be like getting married for the same reason.