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There are health benefits to having a dog, based on results from studies and testimonials from dog owners. Now a study of millions of Swedes found  that dog ownership is associated with a lower risk of cardiovascular disease (CVD) in single-person households and a lower risk of death from cardiovascular or other causes ("all cause mortality") in general. Owning a hunting dog breed had the strongest association with cardiovascular health. Some of these health benefits are due to dogs providing companionship, affection, and increased physical activity (all those walks) of their owners. And of course there's sharing of microbes. From Science Daily:

Dog ownership linked to lower mortality rate

A team of Swedish scientists have used national registries of more than 3.4 million Swedes aged 40 to 80 to study the association between dog ownership and cardiovascular health. Their study shows that dog owners had a lower risk of death due to cardiovascular disease or to other causes during the 12-year follow-upA total of more than 3.4 million individuals without any prior cardiovascular disease in 2001 were included in the researchers' study linking together seven different national data sources, including two dog ownership registers. 

"A very interesting finding in our study was that dog ownership was especially prominent as a protective factor in persons living alone, which is a group reported previously to be at higher risk of cardiovascular disease and death than those living in a multi-person household. Perhaps a dog may stand in as an important family member in the single households. The results showed that single dog owners had a 33 percent reduction in risk of death and 11 percent reduction in risk of cardiovascular disease during follow-up compared to single non-owners. Another interesting finding was that owners to dogs from breed groups originally bred for hunting were most protected," says Mwenya Mubanga, lead junior author of the study and PhD student at the Department of Medical Sciences and the Science for Life Laboratory, Uppsala University.

"These kind of epidemiological studies look for associations in large populations but do not provide answers on whether and how dogs could protect from cardiovascular disease. We know that dog owners in general have a higher level of physical activity, which could be one explanation to the observed results. Other explanations include an increased well-being and social contacts or effects of the dog on the bacterial microbiome in the owner," says Tove Fall, senior author of the study and Associate Professor in Epidemiology at the Department of Medical Sciences and the Science for Life Laboratory, Uppsala University. "There might also be differences between owners and non-owners already before buying a dog, which could have influenced our results, such as those people choosing to get a dog tending to be more active and of better health." [Original study.]

Labrador Retriever image Other studies have found this same association - that living with a dog or farm animal has health benefits such as lower risk of allergies and asthma. In a Swedish nationwide study looking at over a million children, the association between early exposure to dogs and farm animals and the risk of asthma was evaluated. All children born in Sweden from January 1, 2001, to December 31, 2010 were included. The researchers found that exposure to dogs and farm animals during the first year of life reduces the risk of asthma in children at age 6 years. From Science Daily:

Early contact with dogs linked to lower risk of asthma

A team of Swedish scientists have used national register information in more than one million Swedish children to study the association of early life contact with dogs and subsequent development of asthma. This question has been studied extensively previously, but conclusive findings have been lacking. The new study showed that children who grew up with dogs had about 15 percent less asthma than children without dogs.

A total of more than one million children were included in the researchers' study linking together nine different national data sources, including two dog ownership registers not previously used for medical research...."Earlier studies have shown that growing up on a farm reduces a child's risk of asthma to about half. We wanted to see if this relationship also was true also for children growing up with dogs in their homes. Our results confirmed the farming effect, and we also saw that children who grew up with dogs had about 15 percent less asthma than children without dogs.

"These kind of epidemiological studies look for associations in large populations but do not provide answers on whether and how animals could protect children from developing asthma. We know that children with established allergy to cats or dogs should avoid them, but our results also indicate that children who grow up with dogs have reduced risks of asthma later in life. Thanks to the population-based design, our results are generalizable to the Swedish population, and probably also to other European populations with similar culture regarding pet ownership and farming" says Catarina Almqvist Malmros, senior author on the study, Paediatrician at Astrid Lindgren Children's Hospital and Professor in Clinical epidemiology at Dept of Medical Epidemiology and Biostatistics at Karolinska Institutet, Stockholm.