How Dogs are Good for your Heart

image: Oscar, (c) Dr David R Hamilton

I just had to write this blog because a little 8-week old Labrador puppy joined our family last week (that’s him in the photo). We’ve called him ‘Oscar’. He’s a bundle of cuteness, extremely playful, and also VERY fond of chewing his way through just about anything left lying on the floor.

We all know how much love dogs have to share, but I also wanted to share with you why they are good for your health, and especially for your heart.

Research shows that interacting with a dog elevates levels of the hormone oxytocin. In one study, 20 minutes of positive interaction with a dog elevated oxytocin levels by around 20%.

You may wonder what that means. Well, oxytocin is known as a cardioprotective hormone, in that it helps to protect the cardiovascular system from damage. It works in two main ways.

First, it binds to the lining of the blood vessels to stimulate the production of nitric oxide. Nitric oxide then dilates (widens) the arteries, causing blood pressure to be lower.

People familiar with angina medication may know of ‘glyceryl trinitrate’ (nitroglycerin). It’s a medicine that basically delivers 3 lots (tri-) of nitric oxide to do the same job.

Second, research into how cardiovascular disease develops identified free radicals and inflammation as two processes that play a major role. When oxytocin was added to test tubes containing stressed cells, free radical levels dropped by up to 48% depending on the cell type, and inflammation by up to 57%.

Oxytocin is very good for the heart!

It’ll come as no surprise, then, to learn that in men who have had a heart attack, the chances of a second one for those who have a dog is 400% lower then for those who don’t have a dog, a statistic that has moved many cardiologists to write ‘get a dog’ into their prescriptions.

Of course, walking the dog also provides much needed exercise and is also a de-stressor, so this also contributes to cardiovascular health. These are obvious, but  I wanted to mention oxytocin because hardly anyone knows about how powerful a role it plays.

I can’t tell you how much I love having little Oscar in our lives. Watching him play brings a tear to my eyes. I joked with my partner, Elizabeth, that as she’s an actress, this is her first Oscar. 🙂

In only a week, he has brought so much love and joy into our home, as well as naughtiness! Two of my good shirts are now sporting teeth marks and holes.

I’ll keep you updated from time to time on my Facebook page and Twitter feed with how he’s getting on as he grows and, hopefully, stops chewing stuff.

Note: My book, ‘Why Kindness is Good for You’ is about the best resource I know of for the cardiovascular benefits of oxytocin.

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  1. Joy Jenkins (Ian's sis) on October 31, 2012 at 12:37 pm

    Really delightful to read, especially as we are currently seeking out a new pup!!

    Kind regards

    Joy X

    • David R. Hamilton PhD on October 31, 2012 at 1:01 pm

      Glad it’s helpful Joy. I hope you find the perfect pup. Oscar is currently chewing through a piece of rope….makes me smile. 🙂

  2. alison on October 31, 2012 at 1:24 pm

    Hi David, Oscar looks adorable, you sound like a very proud parent ! hopw hes not keeping you up at night x

    • David R. Hamilton PhD on October 31, 2012 at 2:19 pm

      Thanks Alison. Yes, we’re very proud parents. He needs to pee or poop every 2-3 hours so we get up during the rather night than having a space in the house for him to do his business. The result is that he’s almost completely toilet-trained in a week and lets us know when he needs to go. He’s a very intelligent wee pup! 🙂

  3. megan on October 31, 2012 at 1:25 pm

    Oscar is a wee sweetheart. Our family have a 10 yr old labrador and he is so sweet, cheeky and kind – he has brought so much fun and joy to us. Wishing you loads of happy years and fun with Oscar : ) Megan

    • David R. Hamilton PhD on October 31, 2012 at 2:20 pm

      Hi Megan, I can totally picture your dog. I have always loved labs and they seem to get more loving and kind as they age. 🙂

  4. Angela Rodwell on October 31, 2012 at 1:26 pm

    Hi David, It’s funny how things come to you when you need them! We’ve been having discussions about getting a dog recently and this article might just be the tipping point my partner needs to say YES!!!! Thank you!!!

    • David R. Hamilton PhD on October 31, 2012 at 2:20 pm

      I love the timing Angela. 🙂 Glad to be of service in providing that tipping point. lol!

  5. marneta viegas on October 31, 2012 at 1:34 pm

    So lovely! I just know that my dog is helping me. My husband left me a few months ago and my little dog Ronnie Barker is a complete godsend. I think I would be a ball of emotion on the floor if it wasnt for his presence. The walks, hugs and love is the best ever medicine. Thank you for the reminder and sneaky peaky at your bundle of gorgeousness x

    • David R. Hamilton PhD on October 31, 2012 at 2:22 pm

      I’m really sorry to hear about your husband leaving Marneta. I can totally see how your little Ronnie Barker would be a little angel in your life right now. Yes, definitely the best medicine all round. 🙂

  6. Kerry Barker on October 31, 2012 at 3:04 pm

    We’ve only had our 7 week old pup, Ozzy, since Saturday and already he has made a big difference to our lives. I’m normally quite an anxious and stressy person but already I feel my mood has been lifted to a different level, despite Ozzy’s little accidents and naughty moments!

    • David R. Hamilton PhD on November 2, 2012 at 3:09 pm

      Hi Kerry, Yes It’s amazing how much they can lift your mood. I find myself constantly smiling when I look at Oscar. 🙂

  7. Patricia Evered on October 31, 2012 at 3:34 pm

    Lovely to read, thank you. Dogs are amazing. My partner and I were together 13 years and about to be married when he died suddenly of a massive stroke. That was almost two years ago. Just recently I adopted a Border Terrier called Maggie, about 7 years old. The first first morning I had her I was awakened by a scrabbling by my bed and Maggie standing on her back legs and crying gently – I reached down, put my arms around her and we hugged quietly for about a minute, then she got back on all fours and trotted away. The thing is that my partner and I always used to have a hug first thing, every morning of our lives together, and I missed that loving connection so much when he died. But now, every morning, Maggie comes to me, we hug, I get up and she goes back to her basket. Who knows what goes on in a dog’s mind? What they sense? All I know is that dogs are truly, truly amazing.

    • David R. Hamilton PhD on November 2, 2012 at 3:11 pm

      Hi Patricia, that is absolutely amazing. Reading your words brought a lump to my throat….. I can see how much of a really special bond you have with Maggie. Yes, truly, truly, amazing. I’m sorry to hear about your partner but really glad to know that Maggie is now in your life. She’s a real angel!!

  8. chris kent on October 31, 2012 at 4:25 pm

    fabulous article . thats why i have 6 . and why we run the k9 project so our dogs can show love and affection to young people who maybe dont get it, or dont get the right kind, or have trouble showing it, or have trouble trusting people. they can elarn so many giood lessons form dogs, and can get the unconditional love that dogs can give. we are fortunate to have some dogs who can love lots of people, not just their human immediate family, and wh oare happy to share themselves.

    • David R. Hamilton PhD on November 2, 2012 at 3:13 pm

      Thanks Chris…wow, 6!! I absolutely love what you’re doing, allowing the dogs to share their love in a way that helps young people. It’s a great thing!! Dogs really are special, I reckon. 🙂

  9. Manjit on October 31, 2012 at 6:22 pm

    Hi David, lovley to read this, my sisters 12 year old dog also called Oscar like yours passed away 5 weeks ago. They had him from 6 weeks old and he was a source of healing for my sister whose husband passed away suddenly 10 years ago. For a week after the death Oscar did not eat his food and eventually only settled when he was given my brother in laws jumper to snuggle into. My sister had to coax him back to eat by putting the food in her hand and reassuring him. My sister feels if Oscar had not been there she would have not had the strength to carry on. He was a constant companion, was very social and so content. I used to be nervous around dogs and he even brought me round to loving him. His ashes now feed a beautiful tree they have planted in a tub as a reminder of his love and beauty. xxx

    • David R. Hamilton PhD on November 2, 2012 at 3:16 pm

      Hi Manjit, cool that your sister’s dog was also called Oscar. 🙂 I can totally imagine that he was a source of healing. I’m hearing so many stories now about how much love and healing dogs bring, especially when people really need it. I was quite touched to read how his ashes now feed a beautiful tree…. in many ways he is still giving life!

  10. Sallie on November 1, 2012 at 12:50 pm

    Enjoy, enjoy, enjoy! Our yellow Lab is 12 now, she’s a sensitive little Soul (just like me!) , she has brought soooo much joy into our lives and we are very Blessed to have her, esp as we are her 4th home! Little Oscar is sooo very cute, he will be a great addition to your family – even if you do walk around with a chewed shirt on, at least you will do it with a big knowing smile on your face. X

    • David R. Hamilton PhD on November 2, 2012 at 3:17 pm

      Thanks Sallie. Yes, even with my holey shirt I still have a big smile on my face. I love the sensitivity of labs and it’s warming to hear how much joy your lab brought into your life. 🙂

  11. Kathryn Kimbley on November 1, 2012 at 8:38 pm

    Hi David,

    Please take a look at Meg Daley Olmert’s book “Made For Each Other” which explores the biological and in particular hormonal basis for “biophilia”. She discusses the role of oxytocin in the human-animal bond in particular.

    She also discusses this in her TED talk here:

    Oscar is a cutey! Good luck with your new four-legged best friend 🙂

    • David R. Hamilton PhD on November 2, 2012 at 3:22 pm

      Thanks for that Kathryn. I’ve just checked the book out and will order it asap. And I look forward to watching the TED talk. Thanks. 🙂

  12. Buffy on November 2, 2012 at 8:02 am

    Dogs and all animals in general, are very important to me. They give us so much and ask so little in return, my only wish is that more humans see this and appreciate dogs giving them all the love and respect too the protection they deserve. I got 2 dogs and a cat. They help me and care for me, I do the same for them. A life without them is just so empty. I Love them with all my heart. They improved my health and my life in general sooo much is amazing.

    • David R. Hamilton PhD on November 2, 2012 at 3:23 pm

      I totally agree with you Buffy. 🙂

  13. Rosie Cheshire on November 2, 2012 at 4:10 pm

    Delighted Oscar has come into your lives to give you unconditional love [which helps you release your endorphins] teach you playfulness and loyalty. If he manages to claim your bed he might not consider you pack leader, that is his prize. Message from Oscar “I am a working dog I have a lovely soft mouth, if you teach me I will be able to retrieve.Have you any feathers in your pillows I love them as much as you?I dont know if I will be an Alfa dog yet as im not grown up yet but my friends that are Alfas are very good at detecting certain illnesses. Your sense of smell is the size of a postage stamp and mine the size of a king size sheet.You might find the energy levels in our house will change I will be chewing for at least another six months. Thank you for being so patent with me woof woof ! ! !

  14. ANNA WATSON (@arnicanetwork) on November 3, 2012 at 9:05 am

    Dogs are also great for the immune system – infections and GP visits are far less from kids in doggy families… it is thought due to the soil they bring into the home on their paws which builds up the gut flora, as well as a more outdoor living and the cuddles of course!
    Our Tess, English Pointer, is more loved every day x

    • David R. Hamilton PhD on November 7, 2012 at 9:24 am

      Thanks Anna. That’s really interesting to know. I can relate to you loving Tess more every day. We’re like that with Oscar. 🙂

  15. Mary on November 4, 2012 at 10:07 pm

    We have a dog who literally came to us. He was lost and starving when he managed to get onto our property. We ended up adopting him and he has been the most beautiful joy for all of us. One moment sweet and cuddly for Mom, the next a Tazmanien devil for the boys! He adds such energy and laughter to our home! Enjoy all the moments with your precious Oscar.

    • David R. Hamilton PhD on November 7, 2012 at 9:27 am

      Thanks Mary. It’s a whole new world having Oscar in our lives. He adds such laughter and joy, and also naughtiness. 🙂

  16. Jeremy His Prudence on November 5, 2012 at 9:09 am

    Hey David, I just wanted to say that your little puppy is adorable! I’m glad to hear that he’s brought lots of delight into your life. 🙂 I can’t get a dog because I already have cats. Oh well!

    • David R. Hamilton PhD on November 7, 2012 at 9:27 am

      Thanks Jeremy. Yes, lots of delight. 🙂 I had 2 cats growing up – Buttons and Sooty!

  17. Anita Martin on November 5, 2012 at 12:16 pm

    Hi David,
    Sounds as if you’ve got your hands full with Osca. It reminds me of the days when I also had dogs and you are so right about them being good for our health. I know ‘pat’ dogs that visit residential homes are a great asset to the elderly folk. Often they would smile for a dog when they couldn’t smile for another human being! 🙂

    • David R. Hamilton PhD on November 7, 2012 at 9:29 am

      Hi Anita, yes, definitely have our hands full. If he’s not eating or sleeping, he’s chewing stuff – continuously!!! Yes, I can imagine they would be great for residential care homes. They’d bring a smile to anyone’s face. 🙂

  18. Sallie on November 5, 2012 at 4:54 pm

    Hi again David,
    I would like to recommend these CD’s to any pet owner – good for humans too!
    It works wonders for settling my Lab when we go out leaving her at home alone, she doesn’t cry any more, just have to remember to put CD player on ‘repeat’!
    Love Sallie

    • David R. Hamilton PhD on November 7, 2012 at 9:31 am

      Thanks for that Sallie. I’ll definitely check out that music. 🙂 I had heard that there was music that helped keep dogs calm. This must be it. Thanks. 🙂