The Maneater

MU researchers find association between dog-walking, physical health

The study focused on older adults and examined how emotional bonds with pets influenced dog-walking behavior.

Dog-walking can improve the physical health of older adults, according to a study MU researchers published in March. The study suggests that emotional bonds between the person and the dog affect how frequently dog-walking occurs.

“People with higher degrees of pet bonding were more likely to walk their dog and to spend more time walking their dog each time,” the study stated. “The relationship with one's dog may be a positive influence on physical activity for older adults.”

Graduate student Jessica Bibbo, who worked on the study, said the results were exciting because the study used national data. The bigger sample allowed for a generalization to the older adult population as a whole. Bibbo works at MU’s Research Center for Human-Animal Interaction (ReCHAI) and said the center often has to work with smaller, local samples.

Bibbo has been involved with several other studies and research projects as a research assistant at ReCHAI, but said this the first time a study she’s contributed to has gotten a lot of press coverage. Articles about the study recently appeared in publications such as Science Daily, Medical News Today and the Daily Mail.

Dog-walking was associated with lower body mass index, fewer activities of daily living limitations, fewer doctor visits and more frequent moderate and vigorous exercise, according to the study.

Bibbo’s mentor, ReCHAI Director Rachel Johnson, told the Daily Mail that retirement communities should incorporate more pet-friendly policies, such as dog-walking trails and dog exercise areas to provide their residents access to the health benefits.
The idea for the study came out of an assignment Bibbo had for a class last year. She was searching for a large sample so she could do a complex data analysis for her assignment when a particular data set caught her eye. The 2012 Health and Retirement Study, which is published every two years, included a module about human-animal interaction. This was the first time the study had included a human-animal interaction module.

Bibbo told Johnson, who has studied dog-walking since 2005, about the module. Bibbo also got in contact with Angela Curl, an assistant professor in the School of Social Work, who is an expert on this particular data.

“The three of us collaborated, and so between Dr. Curl’s expertise, the data set and Dr. Johnson's expertise in dog-walking, that's how we chose our variables,” Bibbo said.

After they finished analyzing the data, the trio submitted its manuscript in July 2015, and it was published in March.

“It was a long academic process,” Bibbo said. “I mean, I don't think it was long for academia; it's just that academia is a long process.”

Bibbo said that while the results about dog-walking benefiting older adults’ health weren’t surprising, the potential link between emotional bonds and prevalence of dog walking was exciting.

“It's not just having a dog,” Bibbo said. “Having a dog in the household isn't going to necessarily change behavior … We found is that the emotional relationship that we share with our companions may shape our behavior and that may have positive effects on health, as well as our emotional well-being.”

Edited by Claire Mitzel | cmitzel@themaneater.com

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