Biotechnology

For pet dogs, ‘running with the pack’ is probably the best prevention

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What exactly makes Fido fit? And how does a dog’s environment factor into their dog years?

What exactly makes Fido fit? And how does a dog’s environment factor into their dog years?

“People love their dogs,” said ASU School of Life Sciences assistant professor Noah Snyder-Mackler. “But what people may not know, is that this love and care, combined with their relatively shorter life span, make our companion dogs a great model for studying how and when aspects of the social and physical environment can change aging, health and life sustainability.”

Now, the survey and the largest data compilation of its kind—from more than 21,000 dog owners—has uncovered the social determinants that may be associated with healthier aging for man’s beloved canine companion. Among them, measures of the number of dogs’ social support networks were shown to have the greatest influence and association with better health outcomes – 5 times that of financial factors, household stability, or owner’s age.

Led by Snyder-Mackler, PhD student Bri McCoy, and MSc student Layla Brassington, they undertook a comprehensive analysis of a detailed survey of dog owners, totaling 21,410 dogs. This study seeks to discover key social aspects to a healthy lifestyle to help explore the science behind dog years in a large community science effort called the Dog Aging Project. The Dog Aging Project is a partnership led by the University of Washington and Texas A&M medical schools that includes more than a dozen member institutions – including ASU – across the nation.

The main goal of the Dog Aging Project is to understand how genes, lifestyle and environment affect aging and disease outcomes. More than 45,000 dogs are now registered with the project across the US

“This research illustrates the enormous reach of the Dog Aging Project,” said Daniel Promislow, project deputy director and principal investigator. “Here, we look at how dogs can help us to better understand how the environment around us affects health, and the many ways dogs reflect the human experience. Just like humans, dogs in lower resource environments are more likely to have health problems. Thanks to the wealth of data collected by the Dog Aging Project, follow-up studies will potentially help us understand how and why environmental factors affect health in dogs.

McCoy, Brassington, Snyder-Mackler and team conducted a large survey asking each owner questions about themselves and their puppies: from physical activity, environment, dog behavior, diet, treatment and prevention, health status, and owner demographics. Using these questions, they identified 5 key factors (neighborhood stability, total household income, social time with children, social time with animals, and owner’s age) that together help explain the social makeup of dogs and are associated with dog welfare.

They found that the environment the dogs lived in and built predicted their health, disease diagnosis, and physical mobility – even after controlling for the dogs’ age and weight. More specifically: Financial and domestic difficulties are associated with poorer health and reduced physical mobility, while social companionship, such as living with other dogs, is associated with better health. The influence of each of these environmental components is not the same: the effect of social support is 5 times stronger than the financial factor.

“This suggests that, like many social animals – including humans, having more social friends can be very important for a dog’s health,” said McCoy, an ASU graduate student.

Among the more surprising results were: 1) the negative association between the number of children in the household and the health of the dogs, and 2) that dogs from higher income households were diagnosed with more diseases.

“We found that time with children actually had a negative impact on a dog’s health,” Brassington said. “The more children or time an owner devotes to their young, the more likely they are to spend less time with their fur pups.”

“You can think of it as a matter of resource allocation, rather than bad kids for dogs,” says McCoy.

The second counterintuitive finding suggests a role for finance in the probability of disease diagnosis. Dogs from wealthier households have better access to medical care, which inadvertently leads to more disease diagnoses. Because dogs living in households with wealthier owners may seek veterinary care more frequently, and owners have the funds to pay for additional tests, this leads to more diseases being identified.

The results remained largely consistent when accounting for differences in health and disease between purebred and mixed breed dogs, as well as between specific breeds.

One important caveat and cautionary note to the data is due to the nature of the survey. As this is an owner’s report, there may be some errors, biases, and/or misinterpretation of the survey questions.

Their next step will be to start exploring whether there is a connection between the survey and the underlying physiology.

“We now want to understand how these external factors affect a dog’s health – how does the environment change their bodies and cells?” said Snyder-Mackler.

The group of dogs, about 1,000 were part of a more focused group in which Snyder-Mackler and his collaborators collected blood and other biological samples for years to uncover these clues.

“In future studies, we will look at electronic veterinary records, molecular and immunological measurements, and at-home physicals to produce more accurate measures of health and frailty in companion dogs,” said Snyder-Mackler.

“But the take home message is: Having a good network, having good social relationships is good for the dogs we live with,” McCoy said. “But the structure and equality that exists in our society also takes a toll on our companion animals. And they are not the ones who are thinking about their next paycheck or their health care.”

And what’s good for dogs may just echo what might be a good recipe for people to live healthier lives.

“Overall, our study provides further evidence for a strong relationship between social environment and health outcomes that reflects what is known to humans,” said Snyder-Mackler. “We need to focus more attention on the role of the social environment in health and disease, and continue the investigation of how each environmental factor can contribute to many years of healthy living (i.e., “life span”) in both companion dogs and humans.”

The study is published in the online follow-up early issue of the journal Evolution, Medicine & Public Health.


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