Allowing pet dogs to ‘run with the pack’ may be the best way to promote healthier aging

June 12, 2023

What exactly makes for a fitter Fido? And how does a dog’s environment factor into its ability to survive for many dog years? Now, the largest survey and data compilation of its kind—responded to by more than 21,000 owners of dogs of all breeds and sizes—has revealed the social determinants that may be tied to healthier aging for people’s beloved canine companions, reports EurekaAlert.

The Dog Aging Project aims to better understand healthier aging for people’s beloved canine companions. The project is a partnership led by the University of Washington and Texas A&M schools of medicine that includes more than a dozen member institutions—including ASU—nationwide.

The goal of the Dog Aging Project is to understand how genes, lifestyle, and the environment influence aging and disease outcomes. More than 45,000 dogs are now enrolled in the project across the United States,

Among the project’s most interesting findings is that a dog’s social support network has proven to have the greatest influence and association on better health outcomes—five times the effect of financial factors, household stability, or the age of the owner.

Indeed, the researchers say, for pet dogs, allowing them to “run with the pack” may be the best way to promote healthier living.

“People love their dogs,” said Arizona State Univeristy School of Life Sciences Assistant Professor Noah Snyder-Mackler.  “But what people may not know, is that this love and care, combined with their relatively shorter lifespans, make our companion dogs a great model for studying how and when aspects of the social and physical environment may alter aging, health and survival.”

“This study illustrates the incredibly broad reach of The Dog Aging Project,” said Daniel Promislow, project co-director and principal investigator. “Here, we see how dogs can help us to better understand how the environment around us influences health, and the many ways in which dogs mirror the human experience.

“Just as with people, dogs in lower resource environments are more likely to have health challenges. Thanks to the richness of the data that The Dog Aging Project is collecting, follow-up studies will have the potential to help us understand how and why environmental factors affect health in dogs.”

The research team identified five key factors—neighborhood stability, total household income, social time with children, social time with animals, and owner age—that together, helped explained the makeup of a dog’s social environment and were associated with dog wellbeing.

They found that the dog’s lived and built environment predicted their health, disease diagnoses, and physical mobility—even after controlling for the dog’s age and weight. More specifically: Financial and household adversity was linked to poorer health and reduced physical mobility; while more social companionship, such as living with other dogs, was associated with better health. These effects of each environmental component were not equal: The effect of social support was five times stronger than financial factors.

Among the more surprising results were: 1) a negative association of the number of children in the household and dog health, and 2) that dogs from higher income households were diagnosed with more diseases.

“We found that time with children actually had a detrimental effect on dog health,” the researchers say. “The more children or time that owners dedicate to their children, likely leads to less time with their furry children.”

The second counterintuitive finding points to the role that finance plays in the opportunities for disease diagnosis. Dogs from wealthier households have better access to medical care, leading inadvertantly to more disease diagnosis. Because the dogs who live in households with wealthier owners might seek veterinary care more frequently, and their owners have the funds to pay for additional tests, this leads to more diseases identified.

Their results remained largely consistent when accounting for health and diseases differences between pure and mixed breed dogs, as well as among specific breeds.

Next, the team will begin to explore if there are any links between the survey and underlying physiology.

But the take home message is: Having a good network, having a good social connectedness is good for the dogs that are living with us. And what is good for dogs may just echo what may be a good prescription for people to live healthier lives.

“Overall, our study provides further evidence for the strong link between the social environment and health outcomes that reflects what is known for humans,” says 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 study was published in the advanced online early edition of the journal Evolution, Medicine & Public Health.

Research contact: @EurekAlert