Lose Weight, Stay Active – Health Benefits Of Dog Ownership

A large number of people around the world benefit from ownership of a companion animal, possibly even more than they realize. Dogs have been kept as pets by humans for more than 140 centuries, and almost 40 percent of Australians and Americans are dog owners. It is obvious that the bond between owner and dog is an important one, or dog ownership wouldn’t be so prevalent or have lasted so long. If you are a dog owner, you know that your relationship with your pet is beneficial to you both. But did you know that science thinks so, too? Numerous studies have shown the benefits of pet ownership on maintaining a healthy lifestyle, from aiding in weight loss to providing social support and encouraging physical activity. Some of the interesting benefits of the dog-owner bond are examined below.

People and Pets Exercising Together (PPET):

The Study [1]

Woman and Dog runningNorthwestern Memorial Hospital and Hill’s Pet Nutrition, maker of Science Diet and Prescription Diet pet foods, teamed up to conduct a 12-month study on weight management for people and pets. The People and Pets Exercising Together (PPET) study, the first of its kind, found that pets and their owners are more successful at sticking with a weight loss program if they exercise together.

woman with dog

Healthy changes in diet and increased physical activity are key for both animals and humans to lose weight, so it is logical to try a combined program for people and their pets that addresses these issues for them both. According to Dr. Robert Kushner, of Northwestern Memorial Hospital and Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, “We devised a state-of-the-art weight management program based on previous studies that show that people are more effective at losing weight and maintaining that weight loss when they do it with a friend or companion. The P-PET study proves that a faithful pet provides effective social support for losing weight and maintaining weight for up to one year”.

The year-long PPET study was composed of three groups of participants, all overweight:

Group 1: Dog and owner group, consisting of 36 people and their dogs.
Group 2: 53 dogs (no people)
Group 3: 56 people (no dogs)

Dogs in the study received Hill’s Prescription Diet Canine r/d, a nutritionally balanced and low-fat food designed to keep dogs feeling satisfied while they lose weight. Once a dog reached its goal weight, it was switched to Hill’s Prescription Diet w/d for the remainder of the study. An exercise plan was suggested to dog owners, and they were given a regular weigh-in schedule.

People in the study received instruction on behavioral strategies to control caloric intake and increase physical activity. They were also provided with meal plans and pedometers to measure physical activity.

The Results

Both the human and canine participants in the PPET study lost weight and maintained their weight loss over the 12 months they took part in the study. The people lost an average of 11 pounds, which was about 5 percent of their initial body weight, and the dogs lost an average of 12 pounds, or about 15.6 percent of their starting body weight. The maximum weight loss achieved was 35 pounds for dogs, and 51 pounds for people.

Interestingly, Group 1, consisting of owners and their dogs, had a better rate of participation throughout the study. While only 68 percent of the dogs in Group 2 completed the study, 80 percent of the dogs that were participating with their owners remained in the study for the entire 12 months. In addition, about two-thirds of physical activity reported by dog owners was obtained in the company of their pet.

Scientific Studies: Benefits of Pet Ownership on Health and Physical Activity

Health Benefits

Children and Dog runningYears of scientific study have demonstrated that pet ownership provides a number of physical, mental and emotional health benefits to humans. Studies have consistently shown that pet ownership is associated with cardiovascular benefits such as lower systolic blood pressure, lower cholesterol and plasma triglyceride levels, and higher survival rates after experiencing a myocardial infarction (heart attack). Mental and emotional benefits of pet ownership include reduced levels of mental stress, fewer feelings of loneliness and depression, and increased self-esteem [2].

Social support

Pets can be an important source of social support for their owners. In particular, being accompanied by their dog has been shown to provide needed social support to dog owners taking a walk. One study, investigating the importance of companions on walking for exercise, found that women who had no pet or other company to walk with were 31% less likely to walk for either exercise or recreation. Another study showed that the companionship of a dog increases feelings of safety when walking, especially at night or in an unsafe area [2].

Human-Animal Bond: Biophilia Theory

Many people believe that the bond experienced between humans and animals is instinctual, a viewpoint explained by the biophilia hypothesis. Meaning literally “love of life or living systems,” the biophilia theory describes an innate desire on the part of human beings to connect with other living things in the natural world. As demonstrated in the PPET study, exercising with a pet can satisfy this need for connection. Facing a common problem – losing weight and exercising more – was a powerful bonding experience for many of the PPET dog owners. One pet/owner pair, Roseann and her dog Spats, found that participating in the program was a bonding experience that produced results: Roseann lost 30 pounds, and Spats lost 13 pounds – 15 percent of his initial body weight! As Roseann said, “Caring for and loving my dog is what motivated me to be a part of this program.” [3]

Dog Owners Are More Active

A Canadian study compared the physical activity levels of dog owners and people who did not own dogs in the Capital Region District of Greater Victoria, British Columbia. The results appeared to show that the obligation of caring for a dog leads to increased physical activity. Dog owners in the study walked an average on 300 minutes per week, 132 minutes more than the average time spent walking by non-dog owners. They also spent more time overall in mild and moderate physical activity [4].

A study of 8,504 participants from Washington and Maryland also found that dog walking was associated with increased levels of Moderate to Vigorous Physical Activity (MVPA). More dog owning participants met national recommendations for MVRA than those who did not own dogs. Owning a dog was not only associated with increased activity; dog walkers were also significantly less likely to be obese [5].

The walking habits of 41,154 people in California were studied by The National Cancer Institute of Bethesda, MD, which compared the walking habits of dog owners and non-dog owners. As with the other studies, people were more likely to walk for leisure if they owned a dog, with an average increase of 18.9 minutes more walking per week than those who did not own a pet [6].

Another study conducted by Timperio and his team from Deakin University in Victoria, CA, examined if dog ownership or dog walking is associated with weight status in children. They found that the odds of being overweight or obese were lower among younger children who owned a dog and they concluded that “Dog ownership may offer some protection from overweight among young children” [7].

Conclusion
The bond that exists between humans and their pets is a strong one, and science has shown that it has important benefits that go well beyond the obvious. The companionship and social support provided by a dog to its owner has physical, mental, and emotional benefits that can result in increased health and decreased health risks. It has also been shown that dogs can provide the motivation needed for their owners to adopt healthy lifestyle changes, such as increased physical activity. These benefits are seen in very young dog owners all the way to the elderly, and make it clear that pet ownership can be a healthy as well as happy choice.

References:

1. The PPET Study: People and Pets Exercising Together. Robert F. Kushner, Dawn Jackson Blatner, Dennis E. Jewell, and Kimberly Rudloff, Obesity 2006 October, Vol. 14, No. 10.

2. Dog ownership, health and physical activity: A critical review of the literature. Hayley Cutt, Billie Giles-Corti, Matthew Knuiman, Valerie Burke. Health & Place (2007) 13; 261–272

3. New study shows people and pets can succeed together in fighting obesity epidemic. EurecAlert.com

4. Relationship among dog ownership and leisure-time walking in western Canadian adults. Brown SG, Rhodes RE. Am J Prev Med. 2006; 30: 131– 6.

5. Physical activity, weight status, and neighborhood characteristics of dog walkers. Karen J. Coleman, Dori E. Rosenberg, Terry L. Conway, James F. Sallis, Brian E. Saelens, Lawrence D. Frank and Kelli Cain. Preventive Medicine 2008, Volume 47, Issue 3, Pages 309-312

6. Walking the dog: is pet ownership associated with physical activity in California? Yabroff KR, Troiano RP, Berrigan D. J Phys Act Health. 2008 Mar; 5(2):216-28.

7. Walking the dog: is pet ownership associated with physical activity in California? Yabroff KR, Troiano RP, Berrigan D. J Phys Act Health. 2008 Mar; 5(2):216-28.

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