June 29, 2016

Dog Walking is Associated with Better Health in Older Adults

Dog walking is positively correlated with the physical health of adults aged 50 years and older, according to a study recently published in The Gerontologist. However, the results did not show that dog ownership (as opposed to dog walking) was associated with better physical health.
By Laurie Anne Walden, DVM
Dog walking is positively correlated with the physical health of adults aged 50 years and older, according to a study recently published in The Gerontologist. However, the results did not show that dog ownership (as opposed to dog walking) was associated with better physical health.
 
The study authors focused on two research questions. The first was whether owning a dog was associated with improved health and levels of physical activity. The second was whether pet bonding was related to dog-walking behavior.
 
The investigators compared data from three groups of people at least 50 years of age: those who did not own dogs, those who owned dogs but did not walk them, and those who owned and walked dogs. The data source was the 2012 wave of the Health and Retirement Study, an ongoing study sponsored by the National Institute on Aging and the Social Security Administration. Of the 771 respondents whose data the authors included, 271 had at least 1 dog and 500 did not own a dog.
 
Measures of physical health and health behaviors (for example, number of chronic health conditions and frequency of exercise) were self-reported by participants. Questions for dog owners dealt with pet bonding and details of walks with and without their dogs.
 
For participants who walked their dogs, the average walk duration was 30 minutes and the number of walks per day ranged from 1 to 12. Dog owners who did not walk their dogs cited the following reasons: dog characteristics or behaviors (40.1%), health problems of either the owner or the dog (16.3%), lack of time or interest in dog walking (6.1%), and unspecified reasons (36.7%).
 
Dog walking was associated with a number of measures indicating better physical health: lower body mass index, fewer chronic health conditions, fewer doctor visits, fewer limitations on activities of daily living, and more frequent moderate and vigorous exercise. However, dog ownership itself was not associated with improved health behaviors or better physical health. The authors point out that the results do not indicate the direction of this relationship. Dog walking could contribute to better health, or healthier people might be more likely to walk dogs.
 
Among dog owners, a high degree of pet bonding significantly increased the odds of dog walking. Higher pet attachment was associated with walks of longer duration but not of greater frequency. Respondents with higher pet bonding scores also reported that they took shorter (distance) walks with their dogs than they did without them. The authors suggest that the shorter distance could be attributed to owners’ concern for the health of their dogs or dogs’ behavior on walks (frequently stopping to investigate odors or interact with other dogs, for example). The authors note that because this parameter was self-reported, quantitative studies measuring speed and distance traveled with and without a dog would provide more evidence.
 
The results revealed some associations of age with dog walking. Younger participants were more likely to walk dogs. Among respondents who walked dogs, those who were older said they walked more frequently, faster, and further with a dog than without a dog.
 
The authors conclude that dog walking is associated with improved health and health behaviors in older adults. “These results can provide a basis and an impetus for medical professionals to recommend dog ownership and dog walking to their middle-aged and older patients,” they write.
 

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