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Does having a cat help you live longer? - (9/8/2020)

By Dr. Ron Gasbarro

The pharmacist did not personally make many deliveries these days. Yet, he reserved a precious few for select patients. Mrs. Jenkins was one such person that he greatly admired. She was sharp, tough, and independent. However, arthritis and heart problems have limited her abilities to get around. She even gave up driving because of her restricted mobility. As always, when the pharmacist rings her doorbell, he hears her cat, Barnaby, meowing on the other side of the front door.  Then he hears Mrs. Jenkins shuffling along her wood floor to open the door. When she does, Barnaby jumps into her arms and insists on greeting the visitor. "What a big pussy cat!" she exclaimed, laughing. "What would I do without my scary watch cat?" 

Cats can be the ideal pets for a particular population of people. Such individuals include older people who lack flexibility and maneuverability, workaholics who would never have time to walk a dog or apartment dwellers. Having a relatively low-maintenance pet such as a cat can reduce stress and anxiety, and has been found to lower blood pressure, all risk factors for life-threatening cardiovascular issues. 

One study showed that owning a cat could reduce the risk of heart attack by 30 percent, compared to non-cat owners. This 10-year study, done at the University of Minnesota's Stroke Institute, involved over 4,000 Americans. While the study did not show that people with advanced heart disease could survive longer, younger people tended to have fewer heart attacks throughout the study. By comparison, dog ownership was not associated with a reduced risk for death due to myocardial infarction (heart attack) or cardiovascular diseases. 

This study's design was arguably flawed in that the years of cat ownership were not factored into the results. Yet, a previous study showed that simply having a cat lowered blood pressure better than an ACE inhibitor, a popular class of antihypertensive drugs. Note – do not get a cat and go off your medication since the results of these studies are controversial. Just enjoy your cat and take heart that you can have a buddy that may live longer than dogs. 

Why can cats – particularly indoor cats – live longer than their canine cohorts can? Cats are, by nature, aloof. Studies show that because they are basically asocial creatures, unlike dogs that have to sniff and eat everything in sight, cats keep to themselves. Thus, they avoid disease, which can boost their lifespan by approximately three years – 15 years for cats versus 12 years for dogs. Cats are in the wild are likely not to live more than a few years because of disease, predators, and accidents. 

However, indoor cats do need medical attention. According to the American Association of Feline Practitioners Vaccination Advisory Panel, indoor cats should always stay up-to-date on core vaccines. Why? Mice and other unwanted animals can bring in disease-laden fleas that they pass to the cat. As Mrs. Jenkins has attested, “I don’t get a lot of mice in this house. But, if one dares come inside, Barnaby is on it. That’s why he goes to the vet once a year.” 

Can cats kill humans? While the urban legend shat cats can suck the breath from a newborn baby is a myth, reports of cats sitting on an infant’s face and smothering it are rare but real. Instead, one is more likely to trip over a cat and tumble down the stairs. Will the cat mourn your loss? Unlike a dog, probably not. 

Ron Gasbarro, PharmD, is a registered pharmacist, medical writer, and principal at Rx-Press.

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