Dogs, Bees and Us: Do dogs or cats prevent heart attacks?

This entry is part 1 of 5 in the series Dogs, Bees and Us
Birmans on homemade stamps on Zazzle

Birman owners love our “sacred cats of Burma”! On the Zazzle design-it-yourself website, a number of Birman owners have made US Postage stamps from photos of their cats. And, the cats are featured on commemorative stamps in countries from Congo to New Zealand.

I wasn’t always a cat person.

My affection for felines began when our son was 6 and my wife announced, “He needs a cat.”

My wife was an only child and had a special bond with her cats. Our son is an only child, and my wife felt it would be beneficial for him, too. When we told him we were going to get him a cat, he was so happy he burst into tears. Since then, I’ve learned a lot about the human-animal bond, including its relevance for our values.

And, by the way, did you know that sharing our lives with animals yields health benefits?

We looked for a breed that was sociable, gentle, quiet and companionable—settling on Birmans, known as the Sacred Cats of Burma.  From the moment we got the cat, I observed the evolution of a boy-cat bond that supports what biologist Marc Bekoff writes in his latest book, Why Dogs Hump and Bees Get Depressed: The Fascinating Science of Animal Intelligence, Emotions, Friendship, and Conservation. This book is a remarkable collection of Bekoff’s columns from Psychology Today about the latest research into animals, their psychological and emotional lives, and human attitudes toward animals.

One thing I’ve learned, for example, is that a cat can get depressed. We saw that whenever we went on a trip and had someone stop in regularly to feed the cat. Sociable animals need companions and we realized that our responsibility was to provide one. So, we got a second Birman, half-brother to the first, and the depression never reappeared.

Our animal companions also produce benefits for our emotional and physical well-being. Bekoff cites a 10-year study with the astonishing conclusion that having cats helps prevent death from heart attacks! “Those who owned a cat were 40 percent less likely to die from heart attacks than those who had no feline in their lives,” he writes, summarizing the study.

Do dogs have the same effect?  They don’t, according to the study.  Dogs, of course, have other beneficial effects on our lives.

What have you learned from your animal companions?

Are you surprised to learn that cats reduce death from heart attacks?

What benefits have you observed?

Want to learn more about Marc Bekoff’s work?

ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm interviews Marc about his new book and this emerging field of research in this week’s cover story.

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  1. Mary Ceccanese says

    When I was growing up, we never had a pet. However, when my children were young, a mother cat abandoned her kitten by our garage door. Through much persuasion, I was talked into bringing the cat in from the cold. Of course, I couldn’t put her back out into the cold so Puddin became part of our family. She was not an affectionate cat but she always knew when I wasn’t feeling well and cuddled with me on the couch. That was our special time together.

    It does surprise me to hear that cats reduce death from heart attacks. However, I know that when Puddin died, our hearts were broken.

  2. David Thompson says

    I have always had companion animals. In my case mainly dogs starting at age 10 years with my first Keeshond, Rebel. How we loved each other and hours were spent riding my bike & he running along beside. I currently have three elderly dogs for my 73 years and strongly believe in multiple dogs as they are pack animals that need other dogs companionship as we need theirs. I have volunteered at our local Humane Society and can support your belief that cats do extremely poorly in shelters. They miss human companionship worse then dogs (hard to believe I know) and become depressed, unresponsive and get sick in HALF THE TIME the dogs did. I’d never have believed that had I not seen it repeatedly. Dogs adjust by seeking other dogs and new people; cats not so much. All my animals are neutered or spayed for their health; reduced cancer in females & running away in males. My blood pressure always goes down when I pet my old Beagle -Bassett, Daisy who was abandoned at 10 years of age to the shelter and is sweet & gentle & must have been a wonderful Mother (she has the undercarriage to support that!). When I lose one of my children it always hurts so bad and that never gets any better but I have others and hope I always will & can. I only adopt geriatric dogs now entitled to peace at the end of their lives for having enriched mine & preserved my health and positive attitude all my life! Thanks, puppies!

  3. JS says

    I read the story about your cat with interest. I am a handler for a standard poodle who is a capable canine therapy dog, and have witnessed first-hand the benefit people have gained by interacting with Kingsley. This is the setting and approach we usually think about when we speak about animals benefiting our health.

    Ii occurred to me that there is also another approach. Are you familiar with Cesar Milan’s work? He trains humans who have issues getting along with their dogs – this presents as canine behavior issues. His solution is for the human to deal with their “problem” dog using calm, assertive energy, and he demonstrates how that type of approach works. A calm, assertive way of life would also benefit heart health.

  4. Duncan Newcomer says

    I met a woman at the Emergency Room at our local hospital who was holding on tightly to one of those little Mexican lap dogs. It is trained,she said, to know when her blood sugar is off!