Every dog owner knows and sometimes bemoans the daily ritual of taking your pup out for a walk. But as it turns out, those strolls around the block with Fido may be the key to a healthy life, especially as we get older.
What’s new — A study published Wednesday in the journal PLOS ONE examines the relationship between pet ownership, disability, and death among seniors in Japan, providing new insights into the connection between dog ownership and successful aging.
The researchers discovered dog owners had a significantly reduced risk of becoming disabled compared to individuals who had never owned a dog. The study found that current dog owners “have approximately half the risk of disability” compared to those who never had a dog.
Why do dog owners have such a lower disability risk? It likely stems from the extra exercise that dog owners naturally take on as part of their daily routine, which reduces their risk of physical frailty, a precursor for disability.
“Dog walking is a moderate-intensity physical activity that appears to have a protective effect in reducing the risk of disability onset through decreased frailty risk,” Yu Taniguchi, lead author on the study and a senior researcher at Japan’s National Institute for Environmental Studies, tells Inverse.
Sadly, the researchers found no correlation between cat ownership and lowered disability risk, which makes sense, considering most feline owners typically don’t take their pets for regular outdoor exercise.
Why it matters — We’ve long known that moderate exercise among older populations can postpone the onset of disabilities. But now, we can also conclude the exercise associated with dog ownership may help with “successful aging” for senior citizens, according to the research.
As individuals grow older, a canine companion may be just the thing they need to live better.
“This prospective study indicates that the daily care, companionship, and exercise of a pet dog may be recommended as a component of health promotion policy and may have an important role to play in successful aging,” Taniguchi says.
While previous studies connected dog ownership to higher physical activity levels and fewer doctors’ visits, it’s been harder for researchers to investigate the relationship between dog ownership, disability, and mortality.
This study provides a rare look at a large group of seniors — a population at significant risk of disability — and examines how their pet ownership can improve their physical well-being.
In a previous study, researchers concluded dog ownership correlates with reduced physical frailty among Japanese seniors. But with all this robust data from a large study sample, researchers had a unique opportunity to go even deeper into the links between pet ownership, exercise, and physical well-being among older individuals.
But it’s important to note that seniors who do not regularly take their dogs for walks, perhaps because they employ a dog walker or own a pet that does not require as much physical exercise, may not see the same physical benefits.
“In this study, dog owners with no exercise habits showed [a] wide-ranged risk of disability,” Taniguchi says.
How they made the finding — In 2016, the researchers mailed questionnaires about pet ownership, health and exercise habits, and social behavior to 15,000 seniors in Ota City — a municipality in Tokyo, Japan. The researchers ultimately received responses from 11,233 individuals aged 65 to 84.
More than three years later, the researchers conducted a follow-up review. The follow-up period ended in January 2020, avoiding any overlap in excess deaths resulting from the Covid-19 pandemic. The researchers also looked at official death records and rates of disability in the area. Each Japanese citizen above the age of 40 must complete a disability assessment, providing comprehensive data for the researchers to assess.
What’s next — The research provides significant evidence in favor of better physical health linked with dog ownership among seniors. However, it doesn’t delve into whether dog ownership has any influence on the mental health of its owners and whether that plays a role in an individual’s risk for disability. This is a potentially important area of study for future research.
“In future work, it will be important to consider the psychological pathways that may link dog ownership to reduced disability onset,” the researchers conclude.