In the long run, that scamp is going to help you live a longer and healthier life.
A pair of new reports found that dog owners have a lower risk of early death than people without canine companionship, particularly when it comes to dying from a heart attack or stroke.
Dog ownership decreases a person's overall risk of premature death by 24%, according to researchers who conducted a review of the available medical evidence.
The benefit is most pronounced in people with existing heart problems. Dog owners had a 65% reduced risk of death following a heart attack and a 31% reduced risk of death from heart disease, the researchers said.
"People who had a heart attack prior to getting a dog had even more reduction in mortality," said lead author Dr. Caroline Kramer, an assistant professor of medicine at the University of Toronto, Canada.
That analysis was backed up by a separate Swedish study, which found that heart attack and stroke victims who own dogs have a lower risk of dying, particularly if they live alone.
Owning a dog reduced a heart attack patient's risk of death by 33% if they live alone, and 15% if they live with a partner or child, according to data from the Swedish National Patient Register.
Similarly, death risk for dog-owning stroke survivors was 27% lower if they live alone and 12% lower for those living with someone, the Swedish researchers found.
Both reports were published Oct. 8 in the journal Circulation: Cardiovascular Quality and Outcomes.
Part of the benefit is likely due to the physical activity that comes with having a dog, Kramer said.
Kramer undertook the research after noticing changes in her own behavior after she adopted her own dog, a miniature schnauzer named Romeo.
"At the time when I started work on this, I'd had my dog for a year and I noticed that I was walking way more," Kramer said. "There's a lot of evidence that people who have dogs walk way more. Their degree of physical exercise is much more."
Kramer and her colleagues reviewed data for more than 3.8 million people taken from 10 separate studies, and concluded that owning a dog is associated with a long-term lower risk of premature death.
Previous research has found that dog owners tend to have lower blood pressure, healthier cholesterol levels and less stress, Kramer and her colleagues said in background notes.
One study discovered that "the act of petting a dog reduces blood pressure as much as medication to treat hypertension," Kramer said.
But the Swedish study suggests that the companionship of a dog also contributes to a person's health, said Dr. Dhruv Kazi, associate director of the Smith Center for Outcomes Research in Cardiology at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, in Boston.
In the Swedish study, Dr. Mwenya Mubanga of Uppsala University and her colleagues combed their nation's patient database for all people aged 40 to 85 who'd had a heart attack or stroke from 2001 through 2012.
The investigators identified more than 181,000 heart attack victims, about 6% of whom owned a dog, and nearly 155,000 stroke survivors, of whom 5% owned a dog.
Everyone who owned a dog had a reduced risk of death compared to those without a dog, but that risk was doubly reduced in people who lived alone versus those living with another person, the researchers found.
"My own hypothesis is that the biggest driver of this is what dog ownership does for one's mental health," said Kazi, who wrote an accompanying editorial about the two new reports.
Isolation and loneliness have been linked to poor heart health outcomes, Kazi said, and owning a dog appears to ease a person's solitude enough to have a real benefit.
The Swedish study illustrates this. "Individuals living by themselves seemed to have the larger benefit, which goes in line with the fact that it's the companionship driving a large chunk of this benefit," Kazi said.
However, Kazi added that it would be a mistake to overlook the physical benefits of having a dog.
"If you own a dog, it doesn't matter how tired you are or how cold out it is, you still have to go for a walk. That's what you have to do," Kazi said.