Sunday, 27 November 2011

Let's not take for granted a lack of dogs "running at large"

Next Friday, 2 December 2011, I will be presenting new research stemming from our group's investigation of the overall health impact of designating urban public space for off-leash use. The presentation will be part of an international symposium on human-animal studies that is an initiative of the University of Calgary's Department of Anthropology.

My focus is on the City of Calgary's Responsible Pet Owner Bylaw. One important rule in that legal text and others like it is that dogs are not allowed to roam about freely. In legal-speak, dogs are not allowed to be "running at large." It's been that way in Calgary since the late 1800s.

Today, dogs "running at large" are not longer a significant problem in Calgary, which has been confirmed by systematic data collection for our research project. Yet as recently as the 1970s, complaints about free-roaming dogs were a thorn in the side of Calgary's city council and administration. This social problem is important for public health in terms of dog bites, zoonotic disease prevention, physical activity promotion, and perceptions of others and of environments. .

Yet we shouldn't take for granted a lack of dogs "running at large." In central Italy, for example, free-ring dogs are perceived as a social problem with public health and animal welfare dimensions. More than 1 in 10 of the respondents in this study (13%) self-reported allowing one or more dogs belonging to them to roam freely.

All that has happened in Calgary since the 1970s to reduce dogs "running at large" is a significant achievement for public health. Roles in the change process have been played by City government, by the Calgary Humane Society for the Prevention of Cruelty toward Animals, by teachers, community associations, and dog-owning citizens.

Thursday, 24 November 2011

Free-Roaming Dogs and People's Health

In a recent review of qualitative and quantitative evidence regarding dogs' effects on social and physical dimensions of people's environments, Ann Toohey and I drew attention to loose and uncontrolled dogs as a deterrent of physical activity for dog-owners and non-owners alike in higher-income countries. The negative impact of loose and uncontrolled dogs on physical activity patterns in higher-income countries appears to be more pronounced in disadvantaged neighbourhoods and among women, young children, and older adults. Our literature review appeared in the International Journal of Behavioural Nutrition and Physical Activity.

A questionnaire-based study published in Preventive Veterinary Medicine since we completed our review found that the "intensity of the free-roaming dog (FRD) problem was negatively correlated with the value of the UN's human development index recognized for each country." The main problems reported were dog bites, dog attacks, and rabies. More subtle issues of physical activity and social conflict are also plausible, in light of the evidence that we reviewed, in both higher-income and lower-income countries.

Monday, 21 November 2011

Exposure to Stressors, HbA1C and Diabetes Mellitus

Today the American Journal of Public Health published an essay, by Chris Degeling and I, that engages with debates on diagnosing diabetes with HbA1C. This molecule has been used for many years to monitor blood glucose levels in people diagnosed with diabetes. HbA1C can also be used as an index of exposure to inequality and other stressors in the ambient environment, and that's what makes this proposed change to diagnostic procedures exciting. Administrative data will become that much more valuable for research on what drives population health, because huge numbers of people meet the screening criteria for type 2 diabetes mellitus.

In a companion article written in collaboration with Wendy Rogers and published earlier this month in the Journal of Medical Ethics, we lay out the potential advantages for people with type 2 diabetes themselves of this change in diagnostic technology.

Tuesday, 8 November 2011

Urban Dogs and Crime Prevention

The City of Calgary Animal & Bylaw Services will soon embark on a major initative to prevent crime by curbing seemingly minor incivilities, according to a Calgary Herald story published earlier this week.

Members of our research team are excited about the explicit mention of aggressive dogs in the Herald story, as an example of incivility. The fact is, people share urban space with dogs. Whether or not a person has a dog living in the home, the lives of city-dwellers everywhere are affected by the presence of dogs in our midst. Negative influences, like aggressive dogs, need to be curbed.

At the same time, positive influences should be recognized and amplified. A new study conducted in Victoria, British Columbia shows that dog-walkers tend to visit parks consistently - no matter the weather. While the emphasis in this study was on physical activity for owners, frequent dog-walkers could be helping to prevent crime in the meantime, by serving as "eyes on the street" in the way that Jane Jacobs made famous.

Tuesday, 11 October 2011

New Video Content Online

While visiting Montreal to serve as a faculty mentor at the 2011 Population Health Intervention Research Network (PHIRNET) Summer Institute, I was honored to be interviewed twice about my research program: once in French for the PHIRNET site, and once in English for the Health Innovations in Context site.

A couple of weeks ago, I gave a seminar at the Centre for Critical Qualitative Health Research at the University of Toronto. This was a golden opportunity to workshop some new material that I am now working up for publication. Well, not exactly right now...

Tuesday, 12 July 2011

Dogs and Social Inequality: Expanding our Perspective on Pets and Public Health

The more we learn about the potential for pets to impact positively on people's health, the more important it is to be attuned to the potential for pets to reinforce or even widen social inequality.

A recent contribution from our group, led by MD/MSc student Parabhdeep (Prabh) Lail, found that dog-owners were more than 3 times more likely to get out walking year-round in their neighbourhoods. These are important and exciting results, particularly for cities with marked seasons and harsh climates. Yet we would be the first to acknowledge that our sample enjoys more advantages than the general population, and so our recommendations include measures that might help to narrow the gap between the 'haves' and the 'have-nots.'

Another recent contribution from our group enriches the context for the public health interest in dog-walking, by suggesting that dog-owners as well as non-owners who live in advantaged neighbourhoods likely benefit most from the positive impact dogs can have on physical activity. Moreover, our review of the available evidence suggests that in disadvantaged neighbhourhoods, the negative impact of dog and dog-owner behaviour is borne disproportionately by women of all ages and by older men. The lead author of this review is Ann Toohey, who is currently a MSc student and will move up to the PhD program in 2012.

Wednesday, 4 May 2011

Dog-walking helps people stay active and healthy year-round

Today BMC Public Health, a peer-reviewed journal, published the final version of a paper led by Prabh Lail, a UCalgary MSc/MD student with whom I've worked for almost 5 years. The University of Calgary in collaboration with The Calgary Humane Society gracioiusly reached out to the media to help us share some a good-news story about health and disease prevention.

This paper isn't the first to show that dog-owners tend to be more physically active than non-owners, but is the first to show that dog-owners are measurably more active in their neighbourhoods, in summer as well as in winter. In fact, compared with than Calgarians who do not share their homes with dogs, the Calgarian dog-owners who participated in this study by completing questionnaires were about 3 times more likely to walk for recreation in their immediate neighbourhoods. Like many cities in the northern hemisphere, winters in Calgary are long and rather harsh, and previous studies have shown that Calgarians, like other Canadians, tend to be less active during the winter months. That seasonal imbalance can contribute to chronic health problems such as type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, osteoporosis, and depression.

Our main outcome measure -- neighbourhood-based walking for recreation -- is important for community and population health overall because being out and about provides opportunities for neighbours to connect. In fact, an Australian study found that dog-owners were more likely than non-owners to help out and exchange favours with their neighbours -- and not just pet care. Just seeing people out walking can help encourage others to get outdoors and to feel connected, recent research by the same Australian researchers has shown.

Yet we are careful not to prescribe dog-ownership. Responsible dog ownership takes time and money, and so is not feasible for everyone. And some people just don't like dogs or have allergies that preclude a dog living in their homes. Offering to walk a neighbour's dog is one way that non-owners can share in the benefits of dog-walking.

Our results, along with existing evidence that puts these results into a broader context, mean that it is more important than ever to consider barriers to dog-ownership. No-pet rules in rental housing disproportionately affect lower-income people a US study has confirmed. And those who are at higher risk for type 2 diabetes and other chronic health problems, meanwhile, tend to be in lower-income brackets. The Calgary Humane Society encourages landlords and government officials to consider the financial and community benefits of pet-friendly housing.