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.