Science Confirms: Dogs Really Are Man's - and Woman's - Best Friend

A dogMadison, Wisconsin - If you want a friend in Washington, DC, said President Harry Truman, get a dog.


Turns out the same advice holds – as long as you walk the dog -- if you want to maintain your physical function and stay active as you grow older.


That’s the finding of a new study in the July issue of The Journal of Physical Activity and Health by University of Wisconsin–Madison School of Nursing’s Kimberlee Gretebeck, an assistant professor whose research focuses on exercise and functional ability of older adults.


Older adults who have dogs and walk them regularly are much more likely to maintain their functional ability as they age compared to dog owners who don’t walk their dogs, or people who don’t regularly walk, Gretebeck found in the study.


The 1100 participants were from a cross-sectional survey of community-dwelling older adults. The sample included a wide range of staff members and/or spouses recruited from a database of retirees from a large Midwestern university. The participants were between 65 and 95 years old, approximately half were female, most were either married or widowed, and nearly half had attained education above the high-school level. Dog ownership was reported by 14.7 per cent.


The respondents reported their exercise habits and functional ability. Functional ability is defined as the level of difficulty in being able to walk up stairs, lift 10 pounds, get in and out of a chair, and perform light and heavy housework chores.  


Gretebeck discovered that dog ownership/pet responsibility seems to increase the amount of walking older adults do and impact positively their functional ability. Dog owners and dog walkers reported significantly more total walking, walking frequency, leisure and total physical activity, and higher total functional ability than dog owners who don’t walk their dogs and non-dog owners.  Those who don’t walk their dog also reported a less positive attitude than the dog-owning/dog walker group. Along with providing warm companionship, dogs apparently provide other key health benefits such as exercise and higher functional ability in older adults.


“Just owning a dog is not enough, though,” Gretebeck says. “You have to walk them to get the benefits, for the individual as well as the dog.”


Working for years in intensive care units and emergency rooms, Gretebeck saw time and again the difference that exercise made in the lives of elderly patients. Those who stayed in shape and exercised were more independent and healthier and had more positive attitudes toward being physically active; those who didn’t were more often dependent on others, unable to live independently, often depressed, and suffered more serious health complications due to chronic illnesses such as diabetes.  The difference between the two populations, Gretebeck says, is stark.  Owning a dog and walking it regularly, then, can make a profound difference in the health and quality of older adults’ lives.


But if the jury is in on the value of exercise, Gretebeck says that older adults still have more exercise barriers to overcome than most people—among them, caring for an aging spouse, managing chronic health conditions or physical infirmities, and helping with grandchildren.


Still, any way you look at Gretebeck’s research, the canine companions in the study proved once again that dogs, indeed, are man’s and woman’s best friend

Date Published: 07/10/2013

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