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Fitness and Fido: Cardiovascular health for you and your pet!

By Johanna Fee,

 

Animal companions are known for the positive impact they have on their owner’s lives, but how can they affect our cardiovascular and overall health? The presence of a pet has the ability to positively influence blood pressure, increase fitness levels, and increase the likelihood of heart attack survival. However, they can also cause transmission of zoonosis, which are diseases spread between pets and humans. [1,2]

Humans, and pets alike, are widely affected by heart disease. Dirofilariasis, infections caused by Dirofilaria worm (also known as heartworms), are widespread, yet preventable diseases in animals. [4] The severity of the disease depends on the amount of time the heartworms exists in the host. Lesions, perforations, and changes in appearance and elasticity of the heart walls occur with prolonged infection; in addition to narrowing of arteries, these are some of the effects from the parasite. [4] Despite the availability of preventative medicines, heartworm disease is still widely prevalent among our furry friends. Heartworm medication is available in many forms, but like many preventative medicines, there are side effects that create debate for owners on whether to medicate. [5] There is risk of transmission of heartworm disease to humans, however humans are not a good host for heartworms, making transmission unlikely. One consequence of heartworm with humans is that the symptoms associated are similar to those of some cancers, which can lead to invasive diagnostic procedures. [4]

Animal companions can aid in dealing with both mental and physical issues. Animal therapy is a growing field of treatment, where licensed animals are brought to university campuses during stressful exam seasons and to hospitals to visit patients. Moreover, dogs and other animals are now being used as service animals for people coping with various mental health conditions. A literature review by Cutt et al. (2007) demonstrated that pet owners have better heart attack recovery rates, lower levels of mental stress, loneliness, and depression, as well as lower systolic blood pressure and cholesterol. [2] Hypertension, commonly known as high blood pressure, is a major cause of cardiovascular morbidity and mortality. [3] When interacting with pets or even new animals, humans experience a temporary decrease in blood pressure. [1] This correlation demonstrates that having a pet or animal companion could help maintain lower blood pressure and reduce anxiety, resulting in a  possible reduction in cardiovascular health risk. Studies have shown that watching fish in a tank decreases blood pressure for those within the normal or hypertensive ranges. [1] This technique is widely used by doctors and dentists who often have aquariums in waiting areas to help anxious patients relax before their appointments.
Lastly, pets may increase exercise amount and fitness of their owners. [2] Pet owners are found to be more fit than their non-animal household counterparts, however, does having an animal make the owner more likely to exercise or are people who are more fit just more likely to get a pet? While having a pet may correlate with higher cardiovascular fitness, a great reason to consider owning a pet, there are many other factors to consider before adopting a furry friend.

Owning or interacting with a pet can have a positive impact on your cardiovascular health. Although there are other ways of maintaining good cardiovascular health, such as eating healthy and exercising, having a furry companion to accompany you is a win-win. With a friendly and loving animal by your side, the positives surely out way the negatives.

 

References

[1] Beck A and Meyers N. Heath Enhancement and Companion Animal Ownership. Annual Reviews. 1996;17:247-257.

[2] Cutt H, Giles-Corti B, Knuiman M, and Burke V. Dog ownership, health and physical activity: A critical review of the literature. Health & Place. 2007;13(1):261-272.

[3] Makridakis S and DiNicolantonio. Hypertension: empirical evidence and implications in 2014. Open Heart. 2014;1(1):e000048.

[4] Simón F, Siles-Lucas M, Morchón R, et al. Human and Animal Dirofilariasis: The Emergence of a Zoonotic Mosaic. Clinical Microbiology Reviews. 2012;25(3):507-544.

[5] Allen M. The Pros and Cons of Heartworm Shots. PetCareRx. May 2014.

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