Study Shows Owning a Dog, or Cat Slows Down Cognitive Decline

Owning a dog or cat can bring immeasurable companionship and a job. But it might also slow the rate of cognitive decline as you age — especially if you take the dog for walks, suggests the study.

Everyone experiences mental ability declines, such as thinking, learning, memory, problems, and reasoning, as they age, even if they do not have dementia.

However, some can maintain good cognitive abilities far into older age — and researchers set out to discover whether owning pets might have a benefit.

The team from the University of Maryland examined data from 637 participants between the ages of 51 and 101. Although cognitive function declined over a decade for all participants, it was significantly slower for those who owned dogs or cats.

Altogether, almost a third owned pets, with 13 percent owning dogs and 11 percent owning cats.

Analysis revealed that cognitive function declined for all participants over ten years as they aged.

Cognitive decline is slower for people owning cats or dogs than non-owners

However, the decline was slower for those who owned dogs or cats when compared to non-pet owners.

Two-thirds of dog owners reported they walked their dogs. This group experienced an even slower rate of cognitive decline than dog owners who didn’t walk their pets.

In the journal Scientific Reports, the authors wrote, “The current study provides important longitudinal evidence for the contribution of pet ownership to the maintenance of cognitive function in generally healthy community-residing older adults as they age. Older adult pet owners experienced less decline in cognitive function as they age, after considering both their pre-existing health and age.” 

“Memory, executive function, language function, psychomotor speed, and processing speed deteriorated less over ten years among pet owners than among non-owners and dog owners than non-owners,” then continued. “Cat owners experienced less deterioration in memory and language function. Dog walking also was associated with slower deterioration in cognitive function.”

Previous studies have found that pets can provide social support, and interacting with them can lower heart rate and blood pressure. 

Researchers said other explanations could be that pet owners are less stressed, have an external focus for attention, and are more relaxed.

The authors added that owning dogs can also lead to increased physical activity through their need for daily exercise, which is known to be beneficial for health.

“Policymakers can use these findings to support inclusion of pets in care plans, designing housing and neighborhoods for seniors that are friendly for dog walking, and developing programs to support pet ownership,” the authors wrote.