Is it healthier to own a cat or a dog?

By Naveed Saleh, MD, MS | Fact-checked by Barbara Bekiesz
Published June 11, 2024

Key Takeaways

  • In terms of cardiovascular disease, risk is lowest in younger people who own cats, followed by older people who own both cats and dogs.

  • Immunocompromised patients should exhibit caution when caring for pets due to the spread of zoonotic disease.

  • Just like other family members, it’s important to keep cats and dogs healthy—not only for their own well-being but also for the health of their owners.

Did you know there are different health implications of owning either a cat or a dog? The question becomes, then, is owning one type of pet healthier than another? 

Unless you specifically consider yourself a dog person or a cat person, there is likely no right answer to which is better—both types of pets are associated with health benefits and health disadvantages. 

Impacts on heart health

Interacting with any kind of pet has been shown to decrease levels of cortisol, lower blood pressure, decrease loneliness, improve mood, and heighten social support, according to a cooperative study between the NIH and the Mars Corporation’s WALTHAM Centre for Pet Nutrition.[] Pet ownership may also improve heart health, although age can be a factor.

In a study of 6,632 US adults aged 40 years and older, those who were 40 to 64 years of age and who owned only a cat had lower risk of cardiovascular disease (CVD), compared with dog-only owners. The highest risk of CVD occurred in participants aged 65 years or older who did not own a pet.[]

In other findings, participants aged 65 years or more and owned both a dog and a cat were most protected against CVD.

The authors suggest that owning both a cat and a dog may be protective in adults aged 65 years or more due to decreased feelings of social isolation and loneliness. Dog ownership in younger participants, in contrast, may be linked to increased responsibilities, increased need to exercise, and higher veterinary costs vs the cost of owning a cat. Cat owners visit the vet less and don’t need to exercise their pets. 

More generally, the researchers hypothesize that the benefits of pet ownership on CVD health are mediated by the psychological and physiological changes that transpire in the presence of a pet.

Furthermore, in the case of dog ownership, CVD health may be increased by having to exercise the dog.

Despite the findings for the older age group, the authors are not inclined to suggest that elderly adults give up their pets, even if they live in retirement or assisted living centers. Overall, 75% of for-profit retirement living residences accept pets, with the number being much lower in non-profit residences. Importantly, the US Department of Housing and Urban Development requires that all properties for elderly people and those with disabilities not discriminate against residents with a “common household pet.”

Considerations when owning a pet

Pet ownership may not be for everyone. Persons with compromised immune systems are at higher risk for zoonotic infection.[] This includes people with the following:

  • Prescriptions for steroids

  • Cancer

  • Alcohol use disorder

  • Splenectomy

  • Cirrhosis 

  • HIV/AIDs

  • Organ transplant

Tips to curb disease spread

There are several steps that can be taken to curb the risk of zoonotic disease spread in immunocompromised patients or other pet owners.

It’s important to have a veterinarian regularly check all pets for infectious diseases. Cats should be tested for feline leukemia and feline immunodeficiency viruses, which can weaken their immune systems and thus increase the risk of spreading infections to humans. Pets must also have up-to-date vaccinations.

Pet owners should wash their hands after handling or touching a pet, and properly dispose of pet feces. Litter boxes should be kept away from eating areas, and litter should be scooped daily to prevent infection with toxoplasmosis.

It’s a good idea to adopt pets that are older than 1 year, as kittens and puppies are more likely to scratch and bite. It’s also a good idea to keep pets’ nails short to avoid being scratched. Cat scratch disease refers to infection with the bacteria Bartonella henselae.

Pets should be spayed or neutered, as neutered animals are less prone to roaming wild and picking up disease. Pets who are sick with diarrhea, coughing, or sneezing, as well as those with recent weight loss or loss of appetite, should be taken to the vet.

Pets shouldn’t drink from the toilet, as this can also spread disease. It’s important for all cats and dogs to wear flea collars; some owners may choose to provide their pet with permethrin-treated bedding to decrease the risk of flea and tick infestations.

What this means for you

The CVD benefits of pet ownership may be age dependent, and older people in retirement housing should be advised to keep their pets as long as they can. One drawback to pet ownership is that it increases the risk of zoonotic infection in immunocompromised patients. In these populations, extra precautions should be taken.

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