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Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Dog Walking for a Healthy Lifestyle

By Donald F. Smith, DVM, Cornell University
Posted March 15, 2011

New York Times writer Hal Herzog recently questioned the validity of the growing body of research suggesting the positive impact of pet ownership on human health. Keep taking your Lipitor and Prozac, he advised.

But an article in this week’s Times describes the role that dogs can play in promoting exercise and reaping the benefits to our health.  Author Tara Parker-Poke cites research that examines the strong impetus for exercise that dogs can provide for their owners. At a time when 25% of adults report no physical activity during leisure time, the article claims that two-thirds of dog owners walk their pets at least 10 minutes a day and often increase other forms of physical exercise. Parker-Poke concluded that people should “forget the treadmill and get a dog”.

Two of my Cornell colleagues, researcher Barbour Warren, and nutritionist Joseph Wakshlag emphatically agree, citing their own research. They fitted specially-designed pedometers to a group of 48 dogs and monitored the physical activity of both dogs and their similarly-equipped owners. Favorable findings were found at “both ends of the leash”. The people who exercised regularly with their dogs were found to walk an average of almost 12,000 steps per day, putting them in the ‘highly active category’ for the typical American, and more than twice the average person. The dogs also benefitted from the physical activity.

A term for the positive role of pets in human health has been promoted by veterinarian Kate Hodgson who works with both M.D. family practitioners and veterinarians in Toronto. In her recent paper, she suggests using the term, zooeyia, from the Greek root words for animal (zoion) and health (Hygeia, the ancient goddess of health), to describe the benefits of companion animals to people.

Dr. Hodgson feels that physicians often consider only the negative risks of pets in the household, especially asthma. However, she believes that the growing problems of obesity and other conditions in both children and adults challenges all of us to think creatively about the positive role that pets can play in promoting human health.

Dr. Smith invites comments at