Recent research shows that dogs and humans have a lot in common when it comes to staying healthy. The study — a large survey of dog owners and their pups — found several key environmental factors linked to better health and longevity in dogs, such as a strong social network. The results are the latest to suggest that dogs can serve as an excellent model for studying ageing in people, the authors say.
The research comes from the Dog Ageing Project, an initiative billed as the most ambitious of its kind in the world. The project plans to track the health of dogs over a 10-year period and involves scientists from more than a dozen universities and research organisations. Owners are asked to fill out extensive annual surveys about their dogs, and some are also invited to upload their dogs’ veterinary records and medical test samples for smaller studies.
This latest study was published last month in the journal Evolution, Medicine, and Public Health. It focused on finding the aspects of a dog’s home environment that were most strongly associated with its overall health. To do this, researchers scoured through survey data from over 21,000 owners.
All in all, the researchers identified five factors that seemed to have the greatest impact on canine health after accounting for variables like a dog’s age and size. Collectively, they amounted to about 33% of the variation in a dog’s social environment. These factors were neighbourhood stability, total household income, the owner’s age, social time spent with children, and social time spent with other animals. These animals were usually other dogs living in the same home, but sometimes they include other pets as well, including cats.
In particular, dogs living in less stable and financially secure homes were more likely to have poorer health than others, while more social companionship with other animals was associated with better health. But the impacts of these factors weren’t all equal. Social support was estimated to have an effect on health five times greater than financial factors, for instance.
“This does show that, like many social animals — including humans, having more social companions can be really important for the dog’s health,” said study author Bri McCoy, a graduate student at Arizona State University, in a statement released by the university.
There were some surprising results from the study as well. Dogs living in richer households tended to be diagnosed with more diseases than others, though that might only indicate that these dogs are more regularly taken to the vet. Social time spent with children was also negatively linked to dog health. The authors theorise that this link might be the result of owners having fewer resources — including time — available for their dogs once they start caring for their children.
“You can think of it as a resource allocation issue, rather than kids being bad for dogs,” said McCoy.
These findings are based on the subjective experiences of dog owners, which is an important limitation. But the authors say they plan to follow up on their research by looking at the subset of dogs that have their health directly measured through the collection of blood and bodily samples. In the meantime, the authors say their research demonstrates just how important social connection and stability are to both dogs and their humans.
“Having a good network, having a 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.”
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