I adopted my little Lily*, world’s cutest and most affectionate feline, three months after my heart attack. My daughter Larissa, who helped us pick out Lily at the shelter, gave me strict instructions about the kind of cat needed for cardiac recovery: a calm and snuggly lap cat (quite unlike the psycho-special needs-high-anxiety – yet adorable – Lucy who had been my last pet).
About 38% of Canadian households now include a cat like Lily, while 35% of us are dog owners.
But apparently, owning a cat may also reduce your risk of cardiovascular disease by nearly one-third, researchers told delegates to the International Stroke Conference recently. Their study findings provoked a mixed reaction from heart experts and veterinarians. And probably dog lovers, too.
The 10-year study by researchers at the University of Minnesota’s Stroke Institute in Minneapolis looked at 4,000 pet owners. Executive director of the Institute, Dr. Adnan Qureshi, who is also senior author of the study, had this interesting theory about his study’s results:
“For years, we have known that psychological stress and anxiety are related to cardiovascular events, particularly heart attacks. Maybe cat owners tend not to have high-stress personalities, or they are just the type of people who are not highly affected by anxiety or high-stress situations.”
Veterinary experts however, put across another plausible argument for why cats might bring more stress relief than dogs.
Salt Lake City veterinary pathologist Dr. Lawrence McGill suggested it might be because cats are lap animals who want to be petted, and it is this petting that can bring down our stress levels, heart rate and blood pressure.
On the other hand, said Dr. McGill, dogs need hands-on attention, which might actually raise the owner’s stress.
“When you get home from work, dogs demand attention. You have to take them for a walk. Dogs need to be fed according to a routine, whereas cats can practically take care of themselves.”
At least one study has pointed to the companionship, social supports and all that unconditional love provided by pets as being what really helps our heart health – whether it’s provided by a cat or a dog.
For example, this study examined a group of male and female stockbrokers in New York, all of whom were non-pet owners who were also being treated for high blood pressure. They also had these factors in common:
- non-smoking college graduates
- no other medical conditions besides hypertension
- earned more than $200,000 a year
- lived alone for the past five years
- hadn’t owned a pet in the past five years
Dr. Karen Allen of the State University of New York at Buffalo wanted to assess the effects of social supports on these stockbrokers in response to their mental stress. She selected half of the stockbrokers at random to adopt a cat or dog during the study.
She found that those who acquired pets had more stable blood pressure and heart rates during stressful situations than those without pets. In fact, the pets seemed to do more good than the prescribed medicine (each was taking the same blood pressure meds). And those results ending up having a profound effect on the entire group, she says:
“When we told the group that didn’t have pets about the findings after six months, many went out and got them! Social support is what I’m interested in. This study shows that if you have high blood pressure, a pet is very good for you when you’re under stress, and pet ownership is especially good for you if you have a limited support system.”
Dr. Allen has shown in previous studies that a beloved pet can exert a calming influence on blood pressure and heart rate when the owner is performing standard tasks designed to induce mental and physical stress. Her research also has shown that pet ownership can actually substitute for human companionship and, especially for older women who live alone, provide physiological benefits similar to that provided by having close friends. She adds:
“Although the idea that a pet serves as social support may appear peculiar to some people, pet owners talk to and confide in their pets and describe them as important friends. Because pets, unlike humans, are perceived as non-judgmental.”
People of all ages can benefit from pet ownership, but two groups appear to show the most dramatic improvements: students and seniors. Researchers suggest that perhaps during these life stages, many undergo changes that make feel more vulnerable and alone.
Dr. Howard Frumkin of the National Center for Environmental Health believes that humans may be hardwired with a preference for animals and natural settings. He predicts that doctors may one day be advising patients:
“Pet two cats and call me in the morning.”
*May 2011: Sad News Update My little Lily died in my arms this evening, shortly after she had jumped off my lap to curl up in her little bed on the floor beside me while we were watching the Stanley Cup hockey playoffs on TV. Five minutes later, an unusual, low-pitched “meeeeeooooooow” like I’d never heard before, two small coughs, two deep sighs, and then nothing. The vet believes, ironically, that “her heart just gave out”. Thank you, my beautiful little friend, for three wonderful years of your crazy-affectionate self.
Q: Are you a dog person or a cat person?