Researchers involved with a Minnesota study analyzed 4,435 participants between the ages of 30 and 75 from the second National Health and Nutrition Examination Study. They found a decreased death rate from heart attack or other cardiovascular diseases such as stroke. Interestingly, researchers did not see similar results for dog owners.

The Cox proportional hazards analysis was used during 20 years of follow-up to determine relative risk of death from all causes, heart attack and cardiovascular diseases. Previous or current cat owners made up 55 percent (2,435) of the study participants.  When the researchers adjusted results for differences in age, race or ethnicity, gender,  systolic blood pressure, cigarette smoking, diabetes, cholesterol levels and body mass index, they noted a 40 percent higher relative risk of death due to heart attack in participants who had never had a pet cat, compared to those who had previously or currently owned a cat.  There was also a 30 percent higher relative risk of increased risk for death due to cardiovascular diseases among those who'd never had a cat.

"Cats as pets may represent a novel strategy for reducing the risk of cardiovascular diseases in high-risk individuals," the researchers noted.

Minnesota University professor Adnan Qureshi,  who carried out the study, had an explanation that was reported in the London Daily Telegraph. "The logical explanation may be that cat ownership relieves stress and anxiety and subsequently reduces the risk of heart disease,'' Qureshi said in the article.

What about Man's Best Friend?

If you prefer canine friends, "going to the dogs" can be beneficial to your health.

Dr. Leo Pozuelo, psychiatrist and associate director of the Bakken Heart Brain Institute at the Cleveland Clinic, says he feels that owning a dog could also be beneficial because it encourages certain heart-healthy habits.

"There is the social aspect of walking a dog and connecting with other dog owners," he says. "And if you have to walk your pet every day, you are getting regular exercise. Pets are good companions and make people feel more relaxed, and when you are relaxed your blood vessels relax, too, and are more resistant to placque buildup."

Further more, just being around a dog can be beneficial to heart health, according to the American Heart Association. Research reported at the AHA's Scientific Sessions in 2005 found that a 12-minute visit with a pooch aids both lung and heart function. Researchers studied 76 hospitalized heart failure patients to see how they reacted to a visit with a human volunteer or a dog team.  Heart healthy benefits following a visit with a dog exceeded those that resulted from being left alone or a visit with a human volunteer, according to the AHA  Animal assisted therapy (AAT), which reduces anxiety in hospitalized patients as well, has been shown to lower blood pressure in healthy people as well as those with hypertension.  

Furry friends, whether feline or canine, can make you feel relaxed and less stressed--and from your heart's standpoint, that's a good thing.