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Researchers from Indiana University-Bloomington’s School of Public Health are setting out to characterize the impact of pet ownership on the adult gut microbiota, which has been shown to influence the role of cardiovascular disease (CVD) development. The study is being funded by the Human Animal Bond Research Institute (HABRI).

“Studies have found that living with cats or dogs imparts health benefits associated with the gut microbiota of infants and children, such as a reduced risk of developing asthma and other immune-related diseases,” said Dr. Katharine Watson, principal investigator. “Studies have also shown that gut microbiota health is associated with reduced cardiovascular disease risk. However, it is not known whether the gut microbiota of adult pet owners differs from non-owners. As pet ownership is associated with benefits to the gut microbiota of infants, it is probable that adults who live with pets may have similar benefits and that these may play a role in CVD risk reduction.”

Steven Feldman, executive director of HABRI, added, “HABRI is proud to support this novel research into the relationship between pet ownership, gut microbiota and risk of developing cardiovascular disease. Science tells us that pets can influence the physical and mental health of owners, and this project will explore an important aspect of the physiological underpinnings of the human-animal bond.”

Drs. Alyce Fly and Ming Li will serve as co-investigators on the study which may help to determine whether living with a cat or dog is associated with a richer and more diverse adult gut microbiome and whether this, in turn, may mediate reduced prevalence of CVD, officials said in a statement. CVD is the leading cause of death and disability and the most common non-communicable disease in many countries, including the United States, officials further noted.

The research team will analyze data from the American Gut Project (AGP), a cross-sectional dataset containing RNA samples and paired metadata, including pet ownership, demographic, lifestyle and health information. About 2,000 people aged 50 to 85 will be included using data collected between 2012 and 2020. Gut microbial species will be characterized and statistical analyses will be used to estimate the association between microbial species, cat and dog ownership, and CVD. A mediation analysis will test whether the gut microbiome influences any difference between the prevalence of CVD among cat and dog owners and non-owners.

“To our knowledge, this is the first study to evaluate the gut microbiota of adult pet owners and the first to test the hypothesis that gut microbiota are mediated by pet ownership to reduce CVD risk,” Watson said.