When it comes to pet ownership increasing the welfare of elderly people, dog really is man’s best friend. A study published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health suggests that dog owners may be healthier than cat owners or people with no pets.
Pet ownership is extremely popular, with many people reporting that their pets bring joy, love, and comfort to their lives. Having a pet has been linked to several positive outcomes, such as greater physical and mental health for pet owners. Dog owners have been shown to have more physical activity due to taking their dogs for walks. The literature is very limited when it comes to pet ownership specifically regarding older adults, which is the gap in literature that this study sought to bridge.
The new study sought “to extend the limited literature on the type of pets owned and depression and physical health outcomes among older adults,” Amy E. Albright and her colleagues wrote. “The study is unique in that it is the first to investigate the potential benefits of pet ownership in a longitudinal sample of older adults balanced by sex (male vs. female), race (White vs. Black), and geographical location (urban vs. rural residence) which allows for the investigation of whether the potential benefits of pet ownership in later life differ by these individual characteristics.”
Albright and colleagues utilized longitudinal data from an Alabama community sample of people who were 65 years old or older and were recruited between 1999 and 2001. Older adults residing in nursing homes were excluded from this study. Participants completed an initial 2-hour-long interview in-person and completed follow up phone call interviews every six months for the next eight years. Participants completed measures on pet ownership, depression, and self-reported health and physical activity.
Results showed that White older adults were more likely to own both cats and dogs than Black older adults were. Dog owners were more likely to have increased walking and report better health than non-pet owners. This relationship was not moderated by sex, race, or geographic area.
Surprisingly, this was not strongly related to taking their dogs for walks, as less than 8% of participants reported walking their dog in the past 2 weeks. This result is likely due to backyards and public spaces, such as dog parks. Cat owners did not differ in walking or in general health from non-pet owners. The researchers suggest this may be due to the lessened physical demands of owning a cat versus owning a dog.
This study took significant steps into better understanding pet ownership in later adulthood. Despite this, there are some limitations to note. One such limitation is that the health was self-report and may not be accurate. Additionally, the health of older adults can be fragile and based on many factors besides pet ownership. Lastly, this data was only collected from Alabama; future research should expand the geographical recruitment zone for more generalizable results.
The study, “Pet Ownership and Mental and Physical Health in Older White and Black Males and Females“, was authored by Amy E. Albright, Ruifeng Cui, and Rebecca S. Allen.