Feb. 21, 2008 (New Orleans) -- Your cat may bring you a lot more than unconditional love after a tough day.
A new study shows that cat owners are less likely to die of a heart attack and other cardiovascular diseases than people who have never had a pet cat.
The findings emerged from an analysis of data on nearly 4,500 men and women, ages 30 to 75, who participated in the National Health and Nutrition Examination Study. All were free of cardiovascular disease when they entered the study in the 1970s.
Over half, 55%, reported having a pet cat at some point in their lives.
Compared with cat owners, people who never had a pet cat were 40% more likely to die of a heart attack over the 20-year study period. They were also 30% more likely to die of any cardiovascular disease, including stroke, heart failure, and chronic heart disease.
The results held true even after the researchers took into account other risk factors for heart disease and stroke, including age, gender, race, blood pressure, and smoking.
The researchers found no such link for people who had a pet dog.
The findings were presented here at the American Stroke Association's (ASA) International Stroke Conference.
Cat Lovers Have Less Stress
Researcher Farhan Siddiq, MD, of the University of Minnesota, says he thinks that pet lovers share personality characteristics such as low stress and anxiety levels that protect them against heart disease and stroke.
"Dog owners probably have the same characteristics, even though the data don't support it," he adds.
ASA spokesman Daniel Lackland, MD, a stroke expert at the Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston, agrees that both cats and dogs "are good, they make you feel better. And studies have shown that a general feeling of well-being is linked to better overall health."
But, Lackland stresses, the findings should not detract from the critical value of controlling blood pressure, cholesterol, and diabetes.
So should you go out and buy a cat in hopes of cutting your risk of dying of a heart attack? "For other medical interventions, we would need more evidence. But this has minimal risk -- unless you're allergic," Siddiq tells WebMD.