Medical care is expensive these days. But there may be someone in your life who will enhance your health, doesn't require insurance, and is happy to be paid in treats and tummy rubs.
That's right: It's your dog.
A new large-scale study from Sweden finds dog owners have a lower risk of cardiovascular disease and death than their canine-deprived counterparts. It further finds this effect varies by breed, and is particularly strong for single people.
"We know that dog owners in general have a higher level of physical activity, which could be one explanation," said senior author Tove Gall, an epidemiologist at Uppsala University. "Other explanations include increased well-being and social contacts, or the effects of the dog on the bacterial microbiome in the owner."
The study, in the journal Scientific Reports, used data on 3.4 million Swedes between the ages of 40 and 80, who were tracked for 12 years. The researchers noted their health and longevity, as well as whether they owned a dog at any time during that period (determined by two national registers).
"Dog ownership was associated with a lower risk of cardiovascular disease in single-person households, and with lower cardiovascular and all-cause mortality in the general population," the researchers report.
Most strikingly, "single dog owners had a 33 percent reduction in risk of death, and an 11 percent reduction in risk of cardiovascular disease (over the 12 years) compared to single non-owners," said lead author Mwenya Mubanga, also of Uppsala University.
This suggests having a dog is particularly protective for people who live alone, "which is a group reported previously to be at higher risk of cardiovascular disease and death compared to those living in multi-person households."
Intriguingly, the researchers found that, while "all dog types were associated with a lower risk of all-cause mortality," the lower risk of cardiovascular disease was restricted to specific breeds: those "originally bred for hunting, including terriers, retrievers, scent hounds and related dogs."
The researchers can only offer educated guesses as to why dog ownership seems to protect one's health. Aside from enforced physical activity—you have to walk the dog, whether you feel like exercising or not—they note previous research has found dog owners experience less "social isolation, depression, and loneliness," all of which can exacerbate health problems.
In other words, those chats you have with fellow dog owners at the park while your canines are smelling one another's butts produce health-inducing social bonding.
While the study took into account a variety of factors including education and socioeconomic status, the researchers concede that healthy people may be more likely to buy dogs. If that's true, the apparent benefits they found may be exaggerated.
Nevertheless, if you're thinking of getting a pet, but haven't made it to the animal shelter, this study provides a strong incentive to do so. And dog owners: If you're feeling fine, thank Fido.