Research Healthy Aging

Healthy Aging

How the Human-Animal Bond Can Help

Scientific research has demonstrated the link between human-animal interaction and healthy aging.

  • One study found that strong attachment to a pet was associated with less depression among elderly people[1]
  • AAT can effectively reduce loneliness in residents of long-term care facilities, particularly for those who have a strong life-history of a relationship with pets[2]
  • In one trial of 68 nursing home residents in Australia, individuals who visited a dog reported less fatigue, tension, confusion and depression[3]

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Cardiovascular Health

Many studies have explored the relationship between pet ownership and cardiovascular health through focusing on the blood pressure, heart rate and physical activity of pet owners compared to non-pet owners. The American Heart Association reviewed these studies and issued a Scientific Statement connecting pet ownership to the prevention of cardiovascular disease.

Lowering Blood Pressure

  • Pet owners have significantly lower systolic blood pressure than non-pet owners
  • Pet ownership – particularly dog ownership – is associated with decreased CVD risk

A common public health recommendation is that persons obtain either at least 30 minutes a day of moderate-intensity activity on 5 or more days a week, or at least 20 minutes a day of vigorous-intensity activity on 3 or more days a week. Walking for physical activity is widely promoted as it is readily accessible and can be undertaken by the majority of adults. Additionally, walking improves cardiac risk factors such as cholesterol, blood pressure, diabetes, obesity, vascular stiffness and inflammation and mental stress.

Increasing Physical Activity

A woman in the park with her dog
While simply walking your dog can provide health benefits, groups like K9 Fit Club (pictured) incorporate companion animals into more rigorous workouts for improved motivation. Photo: K9 Fit Club
  • Dog owners engage in more physical activity and walking and are more likely to achieve the recommended physical activity than non-owners
  • On average, dog owners walk more minutes per week than non-owners
  • Pets positively influence the level of human physical activity
  • Dog owners engage in significantly more minutes per week of physical activity and walking and were 57% more likely to meet the recommended level of physical activity than non-owners
  • Dog walking is associated with a lower incidence of obesity[4][5]

A study that analyzed data from a 2005 Michigan Behavioral Risk Factor Survey found that dog walking was associated with a significant increase in walking activity and leisure-time physical activity, and concluded that the promotion of dog walking could help increase LTPA

  • Dog walkers walked about an hour more per week than dog owners who did not walk their dog, and about a half an hour more per week than non-dog owners
  • Approximately 60% of dog walkers met the criteria for regular moderate and/or vigorous leisure-time physical activity (LTPA) compared with about 45% for non-dog owners and dog owners who did not walk their dog
  • Compared with non-dog owners, the odds of obtaining at least 150 minutes per week of total walking were 34% higher for dog walkers and the odds of doing any LTPA were 69% higher[6]
  • A significantly lower relative risk for death due to cardiovascular diseases (including a stroke) has been observed among cat owners[7]

Reducing Stress and Improving Cardiovascular Recovery

  • A growing body of literature has implicated the duration of cardiovascular recovery following stressor exposure as a risk factor for essential hypertension.
  • Pets can buffer reactivity to acute stress as well as diminish perceptions of stress.
  • Relative to non-owners, people with pets had significantly lower resting heart rate, systolic blood pressure, diastolic blood pressure; exhibited significantly lower HR, SBP and DBP reactivity during a mental arithmetic task, and returned to baseline levels faster.[8]

A recently published HABRI-funded study found that a simple email intervention sharing the importance of walking and the positive impact of walking on a dog’s health were effective tools to promote walking.

These interventions caused participants to increase and maintain dog walking over a 12-month period.

Email intervention for non-dog owners also increased weekly minutes of walking, however dog owners accumulated significantly more walking minutes per week than non-dog owners.[9]

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Alzheimer’s Disease & Dementia

Research has indicated that the human-animal bond can play an important role in improving the quality of life for the Alzheimer’s sufferer as well as their immediate network of caregivers.

Reduction of aggression and agitation

A therapy dog from Dementia Dog brings an older woman her medication
Therapy dogs can be trained to assist those with Alzheimer's Disease in day-to-day tasks. Here, a dog from Dementia Dog fetches a woman's medication. Photo: Dementia Dog
  • Therapeutic recreation AAT intervention can decrease the agitated behaviors and increase the social interactions of persons with dementia[10]

Improvements in Nutrition

  • One study of elderly patients with Alzheimer’s Disease after the introduction of an aquarium into the facility documented a higher food intake and weight gain, and a reduced requirement of nutritional supplementation.[11]

Promotion of Social Behavior

  • The presence of a companion animal can also benefit caregivers through reducing their physiological stress[12]
  • AAA has shown to improve awareness and communication skills of elderly patients with dementia during the activity[13]
Two EAGALA handlers stand next to a therapy horse
Animal-assisted interventions, including equine-assisted psychotherapy, have been demonstrated to improve outcomes for those with depression. Photo: EAGALA

Increasing Quality of Life

  • Dog-assisted therapy has been shown to improve mood, psychosocial functioning and quality of life in elderly dementia patients living in residential aged care facilities[14]

Reduction of Depression

  • Pet therapy is efficient in improving depressive symptoms and cognitive function in residents of long-term care facilities with mental illness[15]

For more information about Alzheimer’s:

For more information about Dementia:


Alleviating Stress, Anxiety & Improving Quality of Life

Studies have demonstrated that animal-assisted therapy (AAT) plays a beneficial role in:

  • Improving rest, nourishment, exercise, socialization, lowering anxiety, overcoming problems, motivation and self-esteem for pediatric cancer patients
  • Alleviating psychological distress in children and their parents, facilitating their coping and with the therapeutic process, and promoting their well-being throughout hospitalization[16]
A girl in a hospital bed hugs a dog
Companion animal interaction has been shown to reduce the stress associated with cancer diagnosis and treatment.

In one study, AAT during counseling for breast cancer was successful in:

  • Increasing calm and feelings of anticipation toward participation in counseling
  • Increasing disclosure of information and engagement with therapy
  • Alleviating feelings of anxiety and distress
  • Increasing communication with health professionals[17]
  • Cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy that had a weekly hour-long session of therapy with a dog rated their symptoms of depression and anxiety half as severe as those who did not.[18]

Detection of Cancer

In addition to providing cancer patients and their families with support, a growing body of research is examining the potential for dogs to detect cancers in humans.

One study found that canine olfactory detection of colorectal cancer is accurate and even higher in accuracy for early-stage cancers.

In patients with colorectal cancer, the sensitivity of canine scent detection of breath samples compared with conventional diagnosis by colonoscopy was .91 and the specificity was .99. The sensitivity of canine scent detection of watery stool samples was .97 and the specificity was .99.

This study concluded that a specific cancer scent does exist and that cancer-specific chemical compounds may be circulating through the body. These odor materials may become effective tools in CRC screening.[19]

For more information about cancer:



Garrity, Thomas F., et al. "Pet ownership and attachment as supportive factors in the health of the elderly." Anthrozoös 3.1 (1989): 35-44.


Banks, Marian R., and William A. Banks. "The effects of animal-assisted therapy on loneliness in an elderly population in long-term care facilities." The journals of gerontology series A: biological sciences and medical sciences 57.7 (2002): M428-M432.


Cherniack, E. Paul, and Ariella R. Cherniack. "The benefit of pets and animal-assisted therapy to the health of older individuals." Current gerontology and geriatrics research 2014 (2014).


Levine, Glenn N., et al. "Pet Ownership and Cardiovascular Risk A Scientific Statement From the American Heart Association." Circulation 127.23 (2013): 2353-2363.


Friedmann, Erika, and Sue A. Thomas. "Pet ownership, social support, and one-year survival after acute myocardial infarction in the Cardiac Arrhythmia Suppression Trial (CAST)." The American journal of cardiology 76.17 (1995): 1213-1217.


Reeves, Matthew J., et al. "The impact of dog walking on leisure-time physical activity: results from a population-based survey of Michigan adults." J Phys Act Health 8.3 (2011): 436-444.


Qureshi, Adnan I et al. “Cat Ownership and the Risk of Fatal Cardiovascular Diseases. Results from the Second National Health and Nutrition Examination Study Mortality Follow-up Study.” Journal of Vascular and Interventional Neurology 2.1 (2009): 132–135.


Allen, Karen, Jim Blascovich, and Wendy B. Mendes. "Cardiovascular reactivity and the presence of pets, friends, and spouses: The truth about cats and dogs." Psychosomatic medicine 64.5 (2002): 727-739.


Richards, Elizabeth A., Niwako Ogata, and Ching-Wei Cheng. "Randomized Controlled Theory-Based, E-Mail-Mediated Walking Intervention Differences Between Dog Owners and Non-Dog Owners." Clinical Nursing Research (2016): 1054773816657799.


Richeson, Nancy E. "Effects of animal-assisted therapy on agitated behaviors and social interactions of older adults with dementia." American journal of Alzheimer's disease and other dementias 18.6 (2003): 353-358.


Edwards, Nancy E., and Alan M. Beck. "Animal-assisted therapy and nutrition in Alzheimer’s disease." Western Journal of Nursing Research 24.6 (2002): 697-712.


Baun, Mara M., and Barbara W. McCabe. "Companion animals and persons with dementia of the Alzheimer's type therapeutic possibilities." American Behavioral Scientist 47.1 (2003): 42-51.


Gilliard, Jane, and Mary Marshall. Transforming the Quality of Life for People with Dementia Through Contact with the Natural World: Fresh Air on My Face. Jessica Kingsley Publishers, 2011.


Travers, Catherine, et al. "An evaluation of dog-assisted therapy for residents of aged care facilities with dementia." Anthrozoös 26.2 (2013): 213-225.


Moretti, Francesca, et al. "Pet therapy in elderly patients with mental illness." Psychogeriatrics 11.2 (2011): 125-129.


Gagnon, Johanne, et al. "Implementing a hospital-based animal therapy program for children with cancer: a descriptive study." Canadian Oncology Nursing Journal/Revue canadienne de soins infirmiers en oncologie 14.4 (2004): 217-222.


White, Jennifer H., et al. "Animal-Assisted Therapy and Counseling Support for Women With Breast Cancer An Exploration of Patient’s Perceptions." Integrative cancer therapies 14.5 (2015): 460-467.


M. Orlandi, K. Trangeled, A. Mambrini, et al., “Pet therapy effects on oncological day hospital patients undergoing chemotherapy treatment,” Anticancer Research, vol. 27, pp. 4301–4303, 2007.


Sonoda, Hideto, et al. "Colorectal cancer screening with odour material by canine scent detection." Gut (2011): gut-2010.