Why dogs (and cats) make you healthier

There's a new secret weapon in the quest to be healthy - a pet dog.

Though it might not feel like it when your pooch has pooped somewhere inappropriate, dogs are great stress-busters and owning one could help make you, your heart and your head healthier.

New research reviewed by the American Heart Foundation has found that dog owners are more likely to have healthier hearts - but it's not just simply down to the hours spent on walkies.

As anyone who owns a dog will know, spending time playing and relaxing with your pet is calming and it seems your body responds well to this time too - with lower stress and even cholesterol levels found in dog owners compared to the pet-less.

"The data is most robust for people who own a dog," says Glenn Levine, a cardiologist with Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, adding that cats and other pets also had benefits too.

The evidence was so strong that experts even found that people who had heart problems saw a definite improvement in their conditions and symptoms when they got a dog.

It's another boon for dog ownership, after recent findings showed that children who grow up in homes with pets are statistically healthier, getting fewer infections in their first few years and even showing a lower risk of developing allergies.

But though this all makes us want to rush out and snap up a pup even more than we did before, it's not as simple as that. Dogs require a huge amount of time, love, effort and money, so being in the right stage of your life (not to mention in the right living situation) is essential to see the psychological benefits.

What the research can't tell us is if people who own, or want to own, dogs and other pets are likely to be healthier anyway and benefit from the relationship because it's something they want in their lives.

Glenn warns: "We don't want someone to go out and buy a dog and then be content to sit on the couch and smoke."

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[Related: How to reduce your stress levels]
[Related: Why young women need to act now to prevent heart problems later]

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