I am a pet lover. I used to say that I was a dog lover (still true), but my daughter dogged us (pun intended) relentlessly for over a year to get a cat.

“They are so soft and cuddly, Mommy.”

“Don't you want a nice puppy dog?”

“No, a kitty cat! They are soft.”

“Puppies are soft.”

“Not as soft as a kitty.”

Our beautiful Siamese cat is, in fact, soft and cuddly. My sister owns a golden retriever who is not soft or cuddly but maddeningly, insufferably, perpetually happy and who lives to love. My Siamese is loving, sedate and independent. The golden retriever is rambunctious, crazy, unintentionally destructive (watch the wagging tail) and, as is with all dogs, completely dependent.

The American Heart Association reports that owning a dog or cat may decrease risk for heart disease. Dogs and cats and human heart disease, what do you know, T or F?

1. They may lower blood pressure.

2. They may lower levels of stress hormone.

3. They are used to treat post traumatic stress disorder.

Charles Schulz famously wrote, “Happiness is a warm puppy.” He may well have written, “Heart health is a warm puppy.” The AHA reviewed studies which suggest that pets, specifically dogs and cats, lower blood pressure and heart rate, decrease levels of stress hormones and generally have a calming effect. The mere presence of a dog or cat in the room has been shown to the lower blood pressure of caretakers.

The evidence is not from gold standard double-blind randomized controlled trials. But, there are enough indicators that the AHA cautiously stated that dogs and cats are, “probably associated with reduced risk of heart disease.” We pet owners just know they make us feel good.

The AHA is careful not to encourage the ownership of dogs or cats solely for the potential health benefits, but rather to provide a good home for the pets and for good companionship. That said, this is great news for pet lovers who have long known the pure joy of the bond with their four-legged friends. Now they learn that their beloved pets may even help them live longer, happier lives.

There are organizations that take therapy dogs to hospitals and nursing homes, always warming the hearts of young and old alike. Kids at Children's Mercy Hospital have been delighted by unexpected visits from therapy pets.

The Guardians of Rescue is an organization that assists veterans suffering from post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) by providing therapy dogs for consolation and relief from suffering through their “Paws of War” program. Veterans report that the animals provide comfort and have a calming effect. The Department of Veterans Affairs is conducting research into the role pet therapy may play in the healing of vets with PTSD. Pet therapy has also been used as an adjunct treatment for chronic pain and depression.

Whether it is the friendliest Siamese cat in the world or the wackiest, most loving golden retriever, pets infuse our lives with joy. Now we are learning that they can help us live longer and happier lives. George Eliot posited, “Animals are such agreeable friends, they ask no questions, they pass no criticisms.” They are good for the soul, and now we are coming to understand, good for the heart.

Answers: 1. T; 2. T; 3. T.

Dr. Lori Boyajian-O’Neill can be contacted at lori.boyajian-oneill@hcahealthcare.com.