How do the lifestyle and environment of our four-legged companions impact their health and aging? Professor Noah Snyder-Mackler from the ASU School of Life Sciences poses this question, underlining the fact that the shorter lifespan of dogs and the intensive care they receive from their owners make them perfect models for studying the effects of social and physical environment on health, aging, and survival.
Now, an enormous survey and data collection effort involving over 21,000 dog owners has shed light on key social determinants that influence the health and aging of our beloved canines.
The findings indicate that a dog’s social support network has the most substantial impact on their health outcomes. In fact, social support is found to be five times more influential than financial factors, household stability, or the owner’s age.
Under the guidance of Professor Snyder-Mackler, PhD student Bri McCoy, and MSc student Layla Brassington, the team embarked on an extensive analysis of the collected data, which represented a staggering 21,410 dogs.
The researchers aimed to identify the vital social factors for a healthy lifestyle, a significant stride in the Dog Aging Project’s community-science endeavor.
For those unfamiliar, the Dog Aging Project is a collaborative effort spearheaded by the University of Washington and Texas A&M School of Medicine.
The initiative includes over a dozen institutions around the country, including ASU. It aims to understand how genes, lifestyle, and the environment influence aging and disease outcomes. So far, more than 45,000 dogs from across the U.S. are enrolled in the project.
Daniel Promislow, the co-director and principal investigator, proudly describes the study’s broad reach. He notes that the data gathered through the Dog Aging Project will allow follow-up studies to explore how and why environmental factors affect dogs’ health.
The ASU team used a large survey that posed a variety of questions to dog owners about themselves and their pets. The inquiries spanned numerous areas, including physical activity, environment, dog behavior, diet, medications and preventatives, health status, and owner demographics.
From these responses, the team identified five key factors – neighborhood stability, total household income, social time with children, social time with animals, and owner age – that combined to shape a dog’s social environment and were associated with canine wellbeing.
The analysis revealed that the environment in which a dog lives significantly impacts their health, disease diagnoses, and physical mobility, even after accounting for the dog’s age and weight. Specifically, financial and household adversity correlated with poorer health and reduced physical mobility.
Conversely, more social companionship, such as living with other dogs, was associated with better health. The influence of social support was five times stronger than financial factors.
McCoy emphasizes the importance of social companionship for a dog’s health, mirroring the importance of social connections among humans and other animals.
Two unexpected findings emerged from the study, which is published in the journal Evolution Medicine and Public Health. First, an inverse relationship was found between the number of children in the household and dog health. Brassington explains that dedicating more time to children likely results in less time spent with the “furry” children. McCoy frames this as a “resource allocation” issue, rather than children being harmful to dogs.
The second counterintuitive finding highlighted the role of finance in disease diagnoses. Dogs from wealthier households tend to have more diseases diagnosed, likely due to more frequent veterinary care and the financial ability to afford additional tests.
The study’s results were consistent across both pure and mixed breed dogs, as well as specific breeds. However, as the data was obtained through owner-reported surveys, there may be errors, biases, or misinterpretations.
The research team’s next steps involve exploring potential links between survey data and underlying physiology. Professor Snyder-Mackler is interested in understanding how these external factors are translating into tangible health effects on dogs.
“We now want to understand how these external factors are getting under the skin to affect the dog’s health – how is the environment altering their bodies and cells?” he noted.
The researchers are keeping a close eye on a subgroup of around 1,000 dogs from the larger study. These animals are part of a focused cohort where blood and other biological samples are being collected over several years to uncover these environmental impacts.
“In future research, we will look at electronic veterinary medical records, molecular and immunological measures, and at-home physical tests to generate more accurate measures of health and frailty in the companion dog,” said Professor Snyder-Mackler.
Still, the central takeaway from the study is clear. “Having a good network, having good social connectedness is good for the dogs that are living with us, said McCoy. “But the structure and equities that are in our society also have a detrimental effect on our companion animals as well. And they are not the ones thinking about their next paycheck or their health care.”
In conclusion, the findings could serve as a prescription for people to lead healthier lives. After all, what is good for our dogs may also be good for us.
“Overall, our study provides further evidence for the strong link between the social environment and health outcomes that reflects what is known for humans,” said Professor Snyder-Mackler.
“We need to focus more attention to the role of the social environment on health and disease, and continued investigation of how each environmental factor can contribute to more years of healthy living (i.e., ‘healthspan’) in both companion dogs and humans.”
The bond between dogs and humans is an enduring relationship that dates back thousands of years. Dogs were among the first animals to be domesticated, and this long-shared history has resulted in a deep emotional and social bond between the two species.
At the heart of this bond is the notion of companionship. Dogs, often referred to as “man’s best friend,” are cherished members of many families worldwide. They provide their owners with emotional support, companionship, and often contribute to their sense of safety and security.
This connection goes beyond simple companionship. Numerous studies have shown that having a dog can provide a range of health benefits. For example, dog owners tend to have lower blood pressure, lower cholesterol, and are less likely to experience heart attacks.
Dogs also promote a more active lifestyle, as they require regular exercise. This increased physical activity can benefit the cardiovascular system and help maintain a healthy weight.
Psychologically, the bond between dogs and humans can also have profound impacts. Interacting with dogs can lead to lower stress levels and can even help ease symptoms of depression and anxiety. The simple act of petting a dog can increase levels of the stress-reducing hormone oxytocin and decrease the production of the stress hormone cortisol.
Furthermore, dogs have been shown to offer significant social and emotional benefits. For children, growing up with a dog can aid in their emotional development and boost their self-esteem.
Dogs can also teach children about responsibility, empathy, and compassion. For older adults, dogs can provide companionship and a sense of purpose, which can help combat feelings of loneliness and isolation.
It’s also important to note that dogs have evolved to understand human emotions and to respond in ways that provide comfort and companionship. They are attuned to human emotions and often react empathetically to their owners’ feelings. This emotional intelligence, combined with their unconditional love and loyalty, makes the bond between humans and dogs truly special.
However, this bond is not a one-way street. Just as humans derive emotional and health benefits from their dogs, the dogs also thrive on the love, care, and companionship provided by their human partners. As the study we discussed earlier suggests, dogs’ health and well-being can be greatly affected by their social environment, which underscores the importance of this mutual bond.
Ultimately, the bond between dogs and humans is a symbiotic relationship characterized by mutual affection, emotional connection, and shared benefits. It’s a relationship that is treasured by many and continues to be a subject of fascinating scientific study.