Pet Dogs are an Important Motivator for Physical Activity

Dr Carri Westgarth

Senior Lecturer in Human-Animal Interaction at the University of Liverpool department of Epidemiology and Population Health, Institute of Infection and Global Health.

Given that dogs and humans have lived alongside each other for many thousands of years, surprisingly little was known about their effects on us until recently. Thankfully, there has been an explosion of research in this area in the last few years. Although many pet owners will tell you how much their dog benefits their lives, the science does not always support this premise [1,2]. In particular, for numerous reasons explored elsewhere in this report the data on emotional benefits is less clear cut. However, the hypothesis that dogs impact our physical health and activity holds up well. It is pretty clear that our furry friends are helping us to keep moving.

A BRIEF HISTORY OF THE SCIENCE

The scientific interest really began with a study in the 1980s by Erica Friedmann, who showed that pet owners were less likely to have died one year after suffering a heart attack than patients who did not own pets [3]. The important question was – why? – because the study found the effect in cat owners as well as dog owners and so it could not be explained through the benefits of dog walking alone.

In another early study, people who adopted dogs and cats were compared to people who did not adopt a pet, over a ten-month period [4]. The new dog owners self-reported increased physical activity, and both dog and cat owners reported reductions in minor health problems. Whilst really promising, these early studies had small numbers of participants and other limitations in terms of biases, so more believable evidence was required.

A considerable exploration of the effects of dog ownership on physical activity was then conducted in Australia, which found that adults who owned dogs had 57% to 77% higher odds of meeting physical activity guidelines of 150 minutes per week compared with those not owning dogs [5], and these estimates have been repeated in research from the US and Japan [6]. This is impressive, but if most dog owners were walking with their dog every day, wouldn’t we expect a larger effect?

A follow-up UK study found a much greater difference – around 300% [7], likely demonstrating cultural differences in how often we expect dogs to be taken for a walk. Greater physical activity of those who own dogs has also been shown in pregnant women [8] and the elderly [9,10]. However studies of children/ adolescents have given mixed findings, with some showing positive effects [11-14] and others no difference [15]. One of the difficulties in conducting this sort of research, and a reason for often mixed and inconclusive findings, is separating cause and effect or asking the question: do more active people choose to own dogs? The small amount of longitudinal research does suggest that when you get a dog you start to walk more [16, 17].

The other issue is that owning a dog does not necessarily lead to more walking. 10% of participants in the UK study said they never walked with their dogs.The strongest factor associated with whether or not someone walks with their dog appears to be their relationship with the dog [18], including in children [19].The reciprocal and intense relationship some people have with their animals engenders a sense of responsibility to meet their perceived needs for exercise [20]. Interviews with dog owners suggest that dog walking can be a great stress reliever, but only if owners enjoy walking with their dog; those that feel their dog doesn’t enjoy being walked or does not need it find it easy to justify not bothering [21]. Dog walking is largely intrinsically motivated [22], ie. we do it because it makes us feel good. Anything that threatens that (for example no nearby places to let our dogs run off leash, behavioural problems) demotivates us. There are also different types of dog walks that occur, from shorter ‘functional’ walks in the rain and on busy work days, just for the dog; to longer ‘recreational’ walks in nicer weather, pretty places and on weekends [23]. It is the latter walks that owners feel they and their dogs get the most benefit from.

IMPLICATIONS FOR SOCIETAL HEALTH AND HEALTHCARE INFRASTRUCTURES

Being physically active is touted to be practically the best thing we can do for our health, so what are the impacts for dog owners? The American Heart Association published a statement reporting robust evidence for a positive effect of pet ownership on physical activity, and also some evidence for hypertension, hyperlipidemia, and cardiovascular disease [24]. Data from Sweden, referenced within this journal, where huge dog ownership and health information registers can be linked and studied, suggests that dog ownership is associated with a lower risk of death overall, or death from cardiovascular disease [25]. However, a reduction in cardiovascular disease was only seen in single-person households and greatest for those who owned more active dog breeds, showing it is probably due to that extra dog walking (which was not itself studied) [25]. In contrast, there is little evidence that dogs help us stay slim in either adults [24] or children [26, 27]. As obesity is about what you eat as well as what exercise you do, perhaps it isn’t surprising that getting a dog is not the perfect solution.

Given that physical activity has downstream effects on risks of many chronic diseases, cancers and mental wellbeing, it is likely that our dogs (or at least the ones we walk) are significantly improving our health.

This will have a largely unrecognised impact on the costs of the health services that treat us, although calculating exactly how much is very difficult. One study estimated that due to fewer doctors visits by pet owners, for the year 2000 savings were being made of €5.59 billion for Germany and $3.86 billion for Australia [28]. Even when accounting for potential health risks requiring treatment, such as dog bites, the money saved by having pets in society is likely far greater than the health costs added [29]. However, new research studying twins complicates the conclusions that can be drawn from many studies comparing pet owners with those who don’t own a pet, by suggesting the tendency to own a dog is quite largely genetic, thus dog owners may have a tendency to be ‘healthier’ in the first place; something that has not been accounted for previously [30].

PETS AND PANDEMICS

At the University of Liverpool, we have recently conducted a survey to study the effects of COVID-19 restrictions in the UK on dog walking. Although the study findings have not been published yet, it seems that lockdowns and furloughs had mixed effects. Some dogs were walked more, some less, and some the same as normal. Many participants reported emotional benefits from owning their pets during this potentially stressful period, which makes sense given we have also seen reports of booming puppy sales during this unusual time at home. Whilst understandable, there are welfare concerns about this. Firstly, it is believed that puppies require extensive socialisation whilst they are young, in order not to be afraid of things later.

In this situation, it has been virtually impossible, either for breeders or new owners, to accomplish this, especially given that veterinary surgeries in the UK were often closed for vaccinations. Unfortunately, as a result the recent puppies I have met have been rather cautious of the big bad world. Secondly, although my dogs would tell you that they love me being at home with them all day at the moment, it may not be good for them long term. Some dogs have struggled to adjust to their owners suddenly being around and disturbing their nap time, and many more may struggle when we all go off to work again. Careful training is advised to help with this, and time will tell if the pandemic caused our dogs problems.

Dog ownership is likely a strongly effective intervention that increases physical activity levels of the general population at a time when governments and public health specialists are trying hard to make us exercise more. Yet at the same time, we are seeing greater restrictions on who can own pets and where our dogs can be walked. Our furry friends deserve to be recognised for the health benefits that they bring us and need to be supported with dog- friendly policies where possible, so that dog ownership and/or dog walking is not discouraged.

 

Dr Carri Westgarth / Pet Dogs are an Important Motivator for Physical Activity

Dr Carri Westgarth / Pet Dogs are an Important Motivator for Physical Activity

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