Improving Your Health, Well-being With Furry Friends, Per AHA Medical Expert Glenn Levine


Editors of MHE and their furry friends had the pleasure of speaking with Dr. Glenn Levine, professor of medicine at Baylor College of Medicine and chief of the cardiology section at Michael E. DeBakey VA Medical Center in Houston. Dr. Levine is also a volunteer medical expert for the American Heart Association’s Healthy Bond for Life initiative and is lead author of the Association’s Scientific Statement on Pet Ownership and Cardiovascular Risk. In the conversation, Dr. Levine shared some wellbeing tips on how our pets can benefit our mental and physical health and wellbeing.

Below is a brief Q&A of the interview with Dr. Glenn Levine. It has been edited for clarity.

Q: There's an association between pet ownership and pet companionship and good health and a lot of different realms. But I've wondered about that association and whether we can really see a true cause and effect, because after all, pet owners and people who have pets as companions, or serve as self selected group, maybe it's a healthy group that selects into owning a pet? How do we tease that apart? How do we know that it's the effect of the animal's companionship that makes a difference?

A: That's a great question. And that's one that our writing group wrestled with a long time. Obviously, by necessity, most of the data that is out there are more registry studies, observational studies or retrospective studies. It's hard to randomize people to own a pet or not own a pet. So we had that in mind when we looked at the data. And what we found is that, yes, most of it is not randomized, but most of it was very good quality data. Many tried to control for as many things as they could. The data seem to pretty consistent, including in some meta analyses.

There also are several randomized trials, where they looked at people interested in adopting pets. They randomized them to either adopt the pet or to defer on adopting the pet. They looked at parameters such as a blood pressure reaction to stress and parameters such as that. In those modest studies, those who were randomized to adopting the pet right away, did better as far as reaction to stress, blood pressure and other things. So yeah, as we clearly stated in our scientific study, there is not definitive data on this, but there's a really good amount of very good data that makes the association seem likely to actually be causative, at least to some extent.

Q: So you in your career you have thought and written and discussed drugs a lot in different sort of interventions. So with pets, what do you think the mechanism of action is in terms of creating good health?

A: Well, the most obvious mechanism was that when you own a dog, you tend to do more physical activity. There were some very good studies that not surprisingly clearly documented that. We know regular physical activity, helps the heart and helps the body as a whole. It also seems that owning a dog decreases mental stress, which we know more and more can contribute to better heart health. It also may have a lot of other indirect benefits. If people are more invested in staying healthy, such as to take care of their pet. It's possible they may be more likely to see the doctor regularly, get screening tests and take their medications. There are a couple other mechanisms. We looked at also a little more esoteric things like a vascular endothelial function and the like.

Q: Have you prescribed pet ownership? Have you been tempted to or do you ever ask patients about their pets?

A: So I certainly ask patients about their pets, or more often they bring it up when we're cardiology clinic, and I asked them things like, "What kind of activities are you doing?", "How far were you walking", they'll mention their pet. And then certainly, I'll always ask more about the pets and see pictures and then we'll compare pet stories. So we do certainly talk about pets. A lot. When I see patients in clinic, one thing I do not do and we specifically call this out in our scientific statement is we do not recommend people go and adopt a pet just to improve their health. We still feel the main reason to adopt a pet is to give the pet a loving home. We don't want people to just sit on the couch eating potatoes and smoking cigarettes all day and looking at the pet this pet wants to go for a walk.

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