Science has long accepted that people are affected by their social environment – a term researchers use to describe day-to-day surroundings, interactions and stresses. For example, people with money, a robust social life and access to safe outdoor spaces are often going to have better long-term health outcomes than those without.
Our four-legged friends, whose lives in many ways mirror our own, are also thought to be influenced by their social environment. But the specifics of how and why have remained largely unexplored until a new study from the Dog Aging Project.
Using owner-reported survey data from over 21,000 dogs, Brianah McCoy, a Ph.D. student at Arizona State University, led a team to identify several key lifestyle factors that influence a dog’s wellbeing. Of these factors, social interactions, particularly with other dogs, appear to play the biggest role in the health of canine companions.
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What Factors Affect Your Dog's Health?
Digging through mountains of doggy data, the team found five broad categories that play key roles in a dog's wellbeing: home stability, income, kids, other pets and owner age.
Boiled down, these factors point to the allocation of limited resources, McCoy explains – in a world of finite time, money and energy, dog owners must make choices that will affect their pups in the long run.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, dogs who live in wealthier homes tend to be healthier overall. Yet curiously, these dogs also seemed to have more diseases. This doesn’t necessarily mean that dogs in high-income homes are sicker, the study clarifies, but rather these pups may be getting more medical care since their owners can afford regular vet visits and tests.
When looking at the effect of owner age on dog health, the data revealed that age matters a lot more for young dogs than old dogs. Young dogs with older owners appeared to have better health than young dogs with young owners – a finding that stumped McCoy and colleagues.
According to the study, households with kids generally had less healthy dogs. This may not be because children are inherently bad for dogs, but rather, the presence of kids in a household often leads to a reallocation of resources away from the canine family members.
“Inevitably, you drop a ball, right?” says McCoy, “And, in a lot of the cases, when it comes to kids and dogs, dogs are the dropped ball.”
Overshadowing other aspects of a dog’s social environment, socialization proved paramount for healthy pups. According to the data, the effect of social support on a dog’s wellbeing was five times greater than that of household income, the next most important predictor.
This doesn't necessarily suggest a need to add more dogs to your household so your dog can live forever. However, quality time spent with both canine and human friends, accompanied by the activities and emotional support they provide, will likely keep your pup happier and healthier in the long run.
The Hunt for a Physical Cause
Next on the agenda for McCoy and colleagues is the hunt for physical markers of aging in dogs. They plan to analyze blood samples from some of the study’s doggy participants to look for immune system responses causing poorer health in certain dogs – bringing us all closer to the goal of ensuring happier, healthier lives for our four-legged family members.
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