Cat owners "appeared to have a lower rate of dying from heart attacks" over 10 years of follow-up compared to feline-free folk, Qureshi said.
The magnitude of the effect -- a 30 percent reduction in heart attack risk -- "was a little bit surprising," he added. "We certainly expected an effect, because we thought that there was a biologically plausible mechanism at work. But the magnitude of the effect was hard to predict."
Qureshi -- proud owner of his own feline, Ninja -- stressed that dogs probably would bring people the same kind of benefit, but the numbers of dog owners in the study wasn't big enough to count statistically.
Kathie Cole, a clinical nurse at the UCLA Medical Center and School of Nursing and the lead author of the 2005 dog-and-heart-failure study, said she wasn't surprised by the Minnesota findings.
"I would be inclined to think that any animal that is perceived as meaningful to a person in a positive way would have health benefits," Cole said. She pointed to multiple studies that have found that animal companions "have a calming effect in regard to mental stressors."
Both researchers believe pet ownership should be perceived as a low-cost, low-risk medical intervention that can potentially save or extend lives, especially for the elderly. "The problem right now is that so many apartment buildings or nursing homes aren't allowing animals in," Cole said. "That's the problem I see from a community standpoint."
Qureshi agreed that cats, dogs or other pets may bring tangible medical benefits to owners.
"This opens a whole new avenue or intervention that we hadn't looked at before, one that can be made at the public level," he said. And unlike drugs or surgery, pet ownership "doesn't appear to have any risks to it," he added.
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