Sunday, February 5, 2012

Dogs May Help Seniors Enjoy a More Active and Healthier Lifestyle

Photo by Rainer Spickmann at

They say that a dog can be man's best friend, but can those furry fellows actually help their owners and people nearby to enjoy a healthier and more active life as they age?

Most Aging Adults Do Not Get Enough Exercise

A significant percentage of older adults do not participate in the recommended 30 minutes of moderate intensity physical activity on five or more days per week. A sedentary lifestyle is listed as one major risk factor for serious health conditions such as diabetes, heart disease, and stroke which can lead to multiple disabilities and a decreased quality of life. According to a CDC article "Promoting Active Lifestyles Among Older Adults," maintaining a regular exercise program has the potential for many benefits for seniors, including:
  • Delayed functional limitations
  • More independence
  • Reduced pain due to arthritis in the knees
  • Better quality of sleep
  • Fewer symptoms of depression
  • Less cognitive decline and memory loss
  • Lower medical expenses
Photo by Kenneth Allen at,

Walking a Dog May Keep Seniors From Becoming Sedentary

A Journal of the American Geriatrics Society September 2006 article “Dog Ownership, Walking Behavior, and Maintained Mobility in Late Life,” by Roland J. Thorpe et. al. compared the mobility of dog owners and non-dog owners and their exercise habits.

According to that study, approximately 1/3 of seniors who owned dogs walked their dogs at least three times per week. Those who walked their dogs at least three times per week were more likely to have more rapid walking rates and to walk at least 150 minutes per week when compared to dog owners who did not walk their dogs. These rates were similar to those of a similar age who walked at least 150 minutes each week who did not own dogs.

The study looked at the groups again three years later and discovered that the seniors who regularly walked their dogs were about twice as likely to walk at least 150 minutes per week than each of the other groups. Perhaps seniors find meaningful activities, such as the need to walk a dog, to be a good motivating force to remain more active over the long term.

Dogs may also help seniors to recover more quickly after a stroke. A 2010 article (vol. 27, issue 2) in NeuroRehabilitation detailed a study in which dogs helped people to recover more quickly after a stroke. A rehabilitation dog significantly helped participants to regain greater speed and progress faster through walking gaits when compared the use of a cane.

What about older adults who cannot or do not wish to own a dog? A bit of creativity can help those who wish to seek out dog walking opportunities in their neighborhoods. Several options for walking a dog without owning one might include:
  • Walking a dog of a nearby relative, friend, or neighbor
  • Fostering a dog
  • Contacting a local Humane Society, animal shelter, veterinarian, or dog rescue center to volunteer to walk a dog(s) on a regular basis
Photo by Rocktendo at

Dogs May Help Improve Overall Health in Seniors

Various studies have looked at depression and mood scores in seniors and how a dog might affect those scores, but the results have been mixed. One small study indicated that elderly residents who were visited by a dog enjoyed the time together, but only one person in the study had improved scores on mood and social interaction. I worked as a cancer nurse for 17 1/2 years, and I found that many patients greatly missed their pets and were thrilled if the animal was allowed to come up to the unit. My grandmother, who liked her daughter's dog to the point where she made him a quilt, was pleasantly surprised to see the pooch one day during a lengthy hospital stay.

Some studies have found that dogs can be great at facilitating interactions when out in public. Other people may be more likely to interact with a senior who is walking a dog. I must admit my kids and I might talk a bit more with someone who has a dog. Sometimes a dog can be a great conversation starter when people are not sure how to begin interacting. The Eden Alternative is just one program that contends that dogs and other animals can improve the quality of life for many older adults.

A study cited in a January 8, 2006 article in Science Daily showed that older adults particularly enjoyed visits with a dog alone rather than dog visits accompanied by other folks. Perhaps people feel more connected to a dog when they can simply interact without interruption.

Many people have heard of Seeing Eye dogs that help people with sight impairments, but many animals are also trained to serve in other ways. Trained service dogs might open doors, detect an upcoming seizure, or assist with activities of daily living. Some organizations, such as America's Vet Dogs and Patriot PAWS, specialize in training dogs to help veterans.

Even dogs that are not specially trained by an organization may help seniors in various ways, from providing companionship to giving them an incentive to survive and thrive despite the many challenges that older adults face. Many seniors are quite good at training dogs and can enjoy a certain satisfaction as a dog masters skills learned under their watchful eye. I have friends who have said that their dogs detected cancer in them and were instrumental in helping them to seek treatment.

Photo by Teeneal at

Dogs May Help Seniors to Enjoy Better Health

Although only about one-third of senior dog owners walk their pets on a regular basis, enjoying a daily walking program with a dog may be beneficial and provide added motivation to remain active for years. Seniors who participate in regular physical activity with a dog along with other healthy lifestyle activities may enjoy greater overall stamina while decreasing the risk for many health concerns. Dogs may assist seniors in maintaining mobility, social interaction, and independence, which can lead to a higher quality of life. Other seniors may find a canine companion to fulfill a simple yet important need to be needed, wanted, appreciated, and loved by another living being.

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