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Walk Me

Canine Companions Make for Healthier, Happier Seniors.

Gerontologists have long recognized that a dog’s unconditional love can provide an important therapeutic boost to aging adults’ mental wellbeing. Now a new finding by Rebecca Johnson, MU’s MiIlsap Professor of Gerontological Nursing, suggests canine companionship also encourages seniors to engage in activities that lead to better health overall.

“Our results showed that dog ownership and walking were related to increases in physical health among older adults,” says Johnson, who also holds an appointment on the faculty of the College of Veterinary Medicine and serves as director of the Research Center for Human-Animal Interaction at MU. “These results can provide the basis for medical professionals to recommend pet ownership for older adults, and can be translated into reduced health care expenditures for the aging population.”

The research, conducted with Angela L. Curl, an assistant professor at Miami University, and Jessica Bibbo, a doctoral student at MU, involved an analysis of data from the NIH’s national Health and Retirement Study. That study, published in 2012, included data about human-animal interactions, physical activity, frequency of doctor visits and health outcomes of the participants. Johnson says she and her team were interested in using the data to explore associations between owning and bonding with pets and seniors’ walking habits and health outcomes. What they found indicates that, yes, there is a clear association between getting outdoors with a dog and a healthful increase in exercise.

Results from the study also indicated that people with higher degrees of owner to-pet bonding were more likely to walk their dogs — and to spend more time doing it — than those who reported weaker bonds. Additionally, the researchers found that dog walking offers a means for elders to do more socializing, especially with fellow pet owners.

The take away? Retirement communities should be encouraged to incorporate more pet-friendly policies, including dog-walking trails and dog exercise areas so that their residents can have access to the health benefits, says Johnson. The study was published in the March issue of the journal The Gerontologist.

Prejudice in Play Art by Brian Stauffer

Walk Me
Art by Ben Voldman

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