Can owning a pet affect older people's health? Those who have dogs may have a lower risk for disability, a new study finds.

In the study published Wednesday on PLOS ONE, researchers sought the link between "dog and cat ownership, the onset of disability and all-cause mortality" in the older population. Previously, they had linked dog ownership among Japanese seniors with reduced incident frailty. This, the researchers noted, could be partly explained by the fact that dog owners tend to have more physical activity and social functioning compared to those who aren't.

For their work, the researchers used questionnaires to collect data on dog and cat ownership of 11,233 community-dwelling Japanese adults aged 65 and older, the Public Library of Science (PLOS) noted in a news release.

"Previous studies have reported that physical frailty greatly increases the risk of future disability," the researchers wrote. "A recent study indicated that older adults who were frail at baseline had 4 times the hazard ratio for incident disability compared with robust older adults."

The participants were asked if they live with a pet currently, had a pet in the past, or "never," and were also asked about the species of the pet. About 13.8% of the participants were current dog or cat owners while 29.5% were past pet owners. On the other hand, 56.8% of the participants never had pets.

The researchers also gathered disability and other health data. They chose the period of 2016 to 2020 as the follow-up period to eliminate any disability or death due to COVID-19.

Dog owners have lower odds of disability

During the follow-up period, 17.1% of the participants had suffered a disability while 5.2% had died. Interestingly, researchers found that "current" dog owners had "significantly lower odds" of the onset of disability compared to those who never owned a dog. They were about "half as likely" to have a disability. Furthermore, the dog owners who exercised had even lower risks for disability, PLOS noted.

As the researchers noted, it appears that "additional benefits" are gained with the combination of dog ownership and regular exercise. This may include regular walks, which is considered a moderate-intensity physical activity.

"(T)his prospective study is the first, so far as we are aware, to indicate that dog ownership may well be protective against the onset of disability in older adults," the researchers wrote. "The daily care, companionship and exercise of a pet dog may be recommended as a component of health promotion policy, and may have an important role to play in successful aging."

On the other hand, the researchers did not associate owning a cat with a difference in disability risk. Moreover, owning either a cat or a dog also wasn't linked with reduced death risk form any cause. According to the researchers, this is contrary to previous work, which associated dog ownership with lower cardiovascular and all-cause mortality, and supports others that did not find an evidence for the link.

"Clearly, our results tend to support the negative case, but explanations for apparently contradictory results need to be found, and require further research," the researchers wrote. They add that future study could also look into the psychological pathways in the link between dog ownership and reduced onset of disability