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Dog owners are half as likely to develop a disability in older age

Older adults who own a dog have a much lower risk of cognitive and physical disabilities, but those who own a cat don’t have the same benefit

Health 23 February 2022

Senior Couple Walking With Pet Bulldog In Countryside; Shutterstock ID 755507464; purchase_order: -; job: -; client: -; other: -

A couple walking their dog

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People who own a dog have a much lower risk of disability in older age – but cat owners don’t seem to be protected in the same way. Unsurprisingly, the benefit is lost if you don’t walk your dog – or take part in another form of exercise – more than once a week.

Yu Taniguchi at the National Institute for Environmental Studies in Tsukuba, Japan, and his colleagues asked around 11,000 people aged 65 to 84 years old if they currently or previously owned a cat or dog. The researchers then tracked the onset of cognitive and physical disability in the participants for 3.5 years between 2016 to 2020.

They found that current dog owners who exercised more than once a week were around half as likely to develop a disability compared with people who had never owned a dog, even when controlling for age, sex, income and health factors such as smoking, diet and cardiovascular disease.

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The team also found that people who owned dogs in the past had around a 10 per cent lower risk of disability compared with those who had never owned a dog.

“Dog walking is a moderate-intensity physical activity that appears to have a protective effect in reducing the risk of disability onset,” says Taniguchi.

Around 13 per cent of dogs in the UK aren’t walked daily according to a 2019 survey by veterinary charity the People’s Dispensary for Sick Animals, putting the animals at risk of obesity and poor mental health.

Meanwhile, current and former cat owners were just as likely as people who had never owned a cat to develop a disability.

But owning a dog had no effect on people’s likelihood of dying in the study period – and neither did owning a cat.

As increased socialising has been linked to a reduced risk of disability, the team also investigated whether the level of social interaction between dog owners and their neighbours had an effect – but it didn’t. This may be because the companionship offered by a pet dog helps to boost cognitive health and compensate for limited human interaction, the team suggests.

Journal reference: PLoS One, DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0263791

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