The Dog Aging Project survey has found that more social support among dogs, such as running with the pack, is tied to healthier living outcomes
What exactly makes for a fit Fido? And how does a dog’s environment factor into their lives?
ASU School of Life Sciences assistant professor Noah Snyder-Mackler, said: “People love their dogs, 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 ageing, health and survival.”
Now, the largest survey and data compilation of its kind – from more than 21,000 dog owners – has revealed the social determinants that may be tied to healthier ageing for people’s beloved canine companions.
Among them, a measurement of the amount of a dog’s social support network proved 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.
Led by Snyder-Mackler, PhD student Bri McCoy and MSc student Layla Brassington, carried out a comprehensive analysis of a detailed survey of owners, which totalled a breathtaking 21,410 dogs.
The study attempted to find key social aspects of healthy lifestyles to help explore the science behind dog years in a large, community-science endeavour.
The main goal of the project is to understand how genes, lifestyle, and the environment influence ageing and disease outcomes. More than 45,000 canines are now enrolled in the project across the USA.
Daniel Promislow, project co-director and principal investigator, said: “This study illustrates the incredibly broad reach of the Dog Aging Project.
“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 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.”
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health and wellbeing
McCoy, Brassington, Snyder-Mackler, and team drew on a large survey that asked each owner questions about themselves and their pup: ranging from physical activity, environment, behaviour, diet, medications and preventatives, health status, and owner demographics.
Using these questions, they identified five key factors (neighbourhood stability, total household income, social time with children, social time with animals, and owner age) that together, helped explain the makeup of a dog’s social environment and were associated with canine health and wellbeing.
They found that the dog’s lived and built environment predicted their health, disease diagnoses, and physical mobility – even after controlling for 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.
ASU graduate student McCoy said: “This does show that, like many social animals – including humans, having more social companions can be really important for the dog’s health.”
Among the more surprising results was a negative association between the number of children in the household and canine health, and that dogs from higher-income households were diagnosed with more diseases.
Brassington said: “We found that time with children actually had a detrimental effect on dog health. The more children or time that owners dedicate to their children, likely leads to less time with their furry children.”
McCoy added: “You can think of it as a resource allocation issue, rather than kids being bad for dogs.”
Increased disease diagnosis
The second counterintuitive finding points to the role that finance plays in the opportunities for disease diagnosis.
Those from wealthier households have better access to medical care, leading inadvertently to more disease diagnosis.
Because the canines that 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 disease differences between pure and mixed breed dogs, as well as among specific breeds.
One important caveat and cautionary note on the data is due to the nature of surveys. Since these are owner-reported, there may be some error, bias, and/ or misinterpretation of survey questions.
Their next steps will begin to explore if there are any links between the survey and underlying physiology.
Snyder-Mackler said: “We now want to understand how these external factors are getting under the skin to affect the dog’s health – how is the environment altering their bodies and cells?”
A subset of the dogs, about 1,000 are part of a more focused cohort where Snyder-Mackler and his collaborators are collecting blood and other biological samples over many years to uncover these clues.
Snyder-Mackler advised: “In future research, we will look at electronic veterinary medical records, molecular and immunological measures, and at-home physical tests to generate more accurate measures of health and frailty in the companion dog.”
The study was published in the advanced online early edition of the journal Evolution, Medicine & Public Health.
Image: © M Thame/ Research Aether.