Community pharmacists can advise patients of the benefits owning a furry friend can have on overall health, says Rod Tucker

Domestic dogs are descended from the grey wolf and are thought to have first been kept as pets between 12,000-15,000 years ago. A 2011 UK survey of over 3,000 people found that 30% owned one or more dogs, which equates to over 11 million dogs. Over the years, research has suggested that dog ownership confers several health benefits including a reduced risk of allergic sensitisation in childhood, a reduction in cardiovascular risk and an improvement in well-being.

But is there any evidence that the reduced risk of cardiovascular disease actually translates into improved survival? In other words, if you have a dog, will you live any longer?

I was interested to read a recent systematic review that set out to try and answer that question. Researchers looked at all studies between 1950 and May 2019 exploring the association between dog ownership and mortality. They identified 10 studies including over 3 million people with an average follow-up of 10.1 years.

The results showed that for dog owners, there was a 24% reduction in overall mortality compared to those who didn’t own a dog. Furthermore, the reduction is risk was actually higher (31%) in those who had a pre-existing cardiovascular disease. Though the authors didn’t adjust for confounders, ie other factors that might have explained their finding, they did call for trials to investigate the value of dog ownership on mortality.

In support of these findings, a second recent study compared the difference in survival from either a heart attack or stroke and dog ownership in the Swedish population. This was a relatively simple task in Sweden because all dogs have to be registered. The authors explored the link between survival in those aged between 40 and 85 who had suffered either a heart attack or stroke between 2001 and 2012 and dog ownership.

Overall, during the 11 years, 38% of people died after a heart attack and 43% after having a stroke. However, dog owners were 21% less likely to have died from a heart attack and 18% less likely to have died after a stroke.

Although these were impressive reductions, it is important to understand that the data are presented as relative risks. What is more relevant is the absolute risk reduction and the authors also report these figures that were far less impressive; 2.4% for men and 2.1% for women.

Thus, although owning a dog does reduce your risk of a dying from a heart attack, it isn’t by very much - only about 2%. Considering that dog ownership is a long-term and potentially expensive commitment when factoring in the cost of food, vaccinations, etc, it may not seem a worthy the investment.

But before we dismiss the benefits of having a dog, other work indicates that regular dog walking leads to weight loss and in older patients, improves self-reported perceptions of health. In fact, simply walking outside (preferably with a four-legged friend) accrues a myriad of health benefits and emerging evidence also suggests that dogs in the workplace can reduce stress and may even be capable of detecting cancer.

It is hard to ignore the wealth of evidence for the potential benefits of dog ownership and perhaps pharmacists should advocate canine ownership to their patients, especially those who either live alone or are in need of more exercise. Dog ownership will no doubt increase social interaction, provide companionship and just might make patients live a little longer.

As health interventions go, it’s probably much better than simply popping more pills.