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Walking the Dog: The Effect of Pet Ownership on Human Health and Health Behaviors

Abstract

This analysis explores whether pet owners have better physical health outcomes, and if so, whether the positive physical health benefits are explained by better health behaviors that result from having to take care of the pet’s physical needs. Data come from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, a representative sample of the non-institutionalized United States population. Analyses were limited to persons living alone (n = 2,474) in order to isolate primary pet caretakers from those merely living in a pet household. Results showed that pet owners, particularly dog and cat owners, had more positive physical health outcomes when compared to non pet owners or those owning other types of pets. Surprisingly, the effect of pet ownership was not mediated by health behaviors such as recreational walking. However, the health benefits of pet ownership were largely reduced once sociodemographic variables such as age, socioeconomic status, and residential location were controlled. The positive health effects of pet ownership appear to be primarily the result of selection, not increased physical activity associated with the active caretaking of pets.

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Correspondence to Rebecca L. Utz.

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Utz, R.L. Walking the Dog: The Effect of Pet Ownership on Human Health and Health Behaviors. Soc Indic Res 116, 327–339 (2014). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11205-013-0299-6

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Keywords

  • Human-animal interaction
  • Obesity
  • Self-rated health
  • Exercise