Recent advances in medical science have resulted in vastly improved life expectancies for people all over the world. However, this has created the new challenge of how to promote healthy aging and reduce disability risk. To achieve this, health policies need to focus on helping older adults maintain their functional capacity, without disability, for as long as possible.
In Japan, data collected as part of a community-wide intervention trial (the Ota Genki Senior Project), were used to assess the relationships between ownership of a dog or cat, the onset of disability, and mortality along the senior population in Ota City, Tokyo. The study was led by Yu Taniguchi of the National Institute for Environmental Studies in Tsukuba.
Taniguchi and colleagues used the information from questionnaires completed by 11,233 Japanese seniors (aged between 64 and 84) who were part of the Ota Genki Senior Project. The respondents answered questions pertaining to pet ownership, and stated whether they owned a dog or a cat currently, had owned these pets in the past, or had never been a pet owner.
The participants also reported on their health, physical activity levels, social connectedness and disability status. The participants were then followed for 3.5 years (June 2016 to January 2020) and their general health was monitored.
Previous research has linked pet ownership to many different positive outcomes for older people. For example, owning a pet has been linked to lower mortality rates, fewer visits to the doctor and a greater capacity to carry out the ordinary activities of daily living.
The authors of the current study previously linked dog ownership with a lower risk of frailty among Japanese seniors. Since physical frailty greatly increases the risk falls and future disability, the researchers hypothesized that owning a pet would also be associated with reduced risk of developing a disability.
Overall, 8.6 percent of the survey respondents currently owned a dog, 22.6 percent were past owners and 68.8 percent had never owned a dog. The figures were slightly lower for owners of cats.
During the study period, older adults who currently owned a dog were half as likely to suffer the onset of a disability compared to those who had never owned a dog. In addition, dog owners who exercised regularly had an even lower risk of developing a disability.
Regular exercise is important for preserving physical strength and preventing the advent of frailty. Dog owners are likely to be more physically active when taking their dog for a walk. The findings of the study also showed that dog owners had better relationships with their neighbors and were more socially active.
The analysis indicated that cat ownership was not associated with any difference in disability risk, and neither dog nor cat ownership was associated with reduced risk of death from any cause.
The study suggests that dog ownership – especially combined with regular exercise – may protect against disability for older Japanese adults. These findings could help inform efforts to promote successful aging. Meanwhile, future research could investigate physical or psychological mechanisms by which dog ownership might provide benefits, or examine relationships between dog ownership and disability risk in other countries.
“Dog ownership protects against the onset of disability in older adults,” wrote the study authors. “The daily care, companionship and exercise of a pet dog may have an important role to play in successful aging.”
The study is published in the journal PLoS ONE.