Can Having a Cat Lower Your Heart Attack Risk?

"I believe the kind of person who would own a cat is a nurturing, low-stress individual," said Nicholas Dodman, director of the Animal Behavior Clinic and professor in the department of clinical sciences at the Tufts Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine in North Grafton, Ma. "Most cat owners I see are very invested in their pet. The cat becomes a focus of their interests and seems to deflect them from other worries."

Other experts were even more skeptical.

"If you believe this research, I have a bridge in Brooklyn to sell you at a very good price," said Dr. Steve Nissen, chairman of the department of cardiovascular medicine at the Cleveland Clinic and immediate past president of the American College of Cardiology.

Moreover, some experts pointed to past research on the health benefits of pet ownership which had vastly different conclusions.

A study of heart attack patients published in the American Journal of Cardiology in 1995 found dog owners were six times more likely to survive an additional year than patients who didn't own dogs. The study found that owning cats, however, actually had an adverse association with survival.

Dr. Robert Myerburg, director of the division of cardiology at the University of Miami, said it makes more sense that dogs would provide more heart benefit to pet owners than cats.

"That [makes] sense to me because cats are more allergenic, and [the] immune response plays a role in heart attacks," Myerburg said. "[I] don't know why this study comes out opposite."

The Truth About Cats and Dogs?

However, Lawrence McGill, technical vice-president and veterinary pathologist at ARUP Laboratories in Salt Lake City, Utah, said it might make sense that cats would de-stress owners and present heart benefits that dogs could not.

"I suspect this is due to the type of animal a cat is," McGill explained. "The cat is most commonly a lap animal and wants [to be] petted. When being petted, the stress level of the pet and owner goes down, as well as heart rate and blood pressure in most cases."

In contrast, McGill pointed out that dogs require more hands-on attention than cats, possibly contributing to the stress of the owner.

"When you get home from work, you have to give a dog attention, [and] if it is walk time — sorry, you have to do this," McGill explained. "They need to be fed on a routine basis. Dogs require [more] attention hands-on and when they want it. Dogs cannot hide their illnesses as much as a cat … [and] to some people, barking dogs are a stressor."

Still, cat lover Marty Becker, veterinarian at the North Idaho Animal Hospital in Sandpoint, Idaho, and author of "The Healing Power of Pets," said he's experienced firsthand the health benefits from owning his five cats.

"I had major surgery around September 2001 because of a slipped disk in my neck and was going through a very hard time," Becker explained. "It was right around 9/11, and all of that sadness and stress was physically debilitating and I felt myself slipping away mentally, but my cats could sense all of this and actually drew nearer to me. I have experienced the healing power of these animals first hand."

According to statistics from the American Veterinary Medical Association, there are more than 72 million pet dogs in the United States and nearly 82 million pet cats.

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