Research Profile – Pets, Parks and Public Health
Dr. Melanie Rock
A University of Calgary research team works with local organizations to explore the social and health impacts of off-leash park areas.
When your dog needs to go out for a walk, you get to tag along. That simple fact is why dog owners tend to report higher levels of physical activity than people who don't share their homes with dogs. Given the popularity of pets, that fact alone could help lower the risk for chronic diseases like diabetes and depression in the entire population.
Why is dog walking so popular? There are more pet bylaws than there used to be. At the same time, there have been substantial changes in social norms about pet care – people want their pets to be healthy – which have created new opportunities to promote human health.
At a Glance
Who – Dr. Melanie Rock, University of Calgary.
Issue – If not implemented properly, off-leash designations can discourage dog owners and non-owners from using public parks.
Approach – Dr. Rock and her team are studying four Calgary parks to understand how pet bylaws can interact positively with off-leash designations.
Impact – Their findings could help policy makers implement better pet bylaws and park policies.
For example, the City of Calgary is poised to expand and improve its off-leash park areas. Dr. Melanie Rock and a team based at the University of Calgary aim to help the city strike the right balance between accommodating dog owners and creating healthy, friendly environments for everyone.
Dr. Rock, who has a background in social work and anthropology, began her health research career by studying the emergence of diabetes as a pressing public health problem. She began to notice a pattern: when she talked about diabetes with acquaintances, the conversation would often turn to pets.
"In everyday types of conversations, people's diabetic pets kept coming up," says Dr. Rock. "When you're a qualitative social science type, those things are kind of jarring, and we're trained to take them seriously. We ask 'Why is someone's cat top of mind when I talk about diabetes?'."
These observations made her wonder whether our pets somehow facilitate a greater level of health awareness and scientific literacy. To narrow down these questions, Dr. Rock began to study how pet ownership specifically affects our day-to-day routines, and what effects that may have on our health.
Around the same time, Dr. Rock began working with Parabhdeep Lail, a master's student and recent medical school graduate who was interested in researching the impact of physical activity on chronic problems such as type 2 diabetes. Dr. Rock also began collaborating with Dr. Gavin McCormack, who is Dr. Lail's co-supervisor.
Together, the researchers found that Calgary dog owners were more than three times more likely than non-owners to walk year-round for recreation in their neighbourhoods. Dr. McCormack led a follow-up study that found that Calgary dog owners tend to walk their pets more often if they live near off-leash park areas. But he and Dr. Rock also confirmed, through a comprehensive review of international studies, that letting dogs run free discourages some dog owners as well as non-owners from visiting parks.
The researchers wanted to delve more deeply into how pet bylaws and off-leash designations may affect population health in urban areas. So they have partnered with the City of Calgary and several non-profit organizations to conduct a three-year study of four parks.
With funding from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, Dr. Rock and her team are now in the process of collecting data to assess the impact of pet bylaws in combination with off-leash designations on social activity, physical activity and infectious disease exposure. Their findings could be extremely useful to people like Bill Bruce, Director of Animal and Bylaw Services for the City of Calgary. Dr. Rock and Mr. Bruce have been working in partnership on the study.
"Often, policy decisions are made in absence of scientific research that is critical in establishing good decisions based on facts," says Mr. Bruce. "Understanding the health benefits of companion dogs in a measurable way influences decisions on the importance of good dog facilities."
Dr. Rock says that the ultimate goal of her project is to provide useful information to decision makers so that they help people realize the health benefits of owning a pet while respecting the needs and safety concerns of the entire community.
"We are not approaching this with the idea that we should be prescribing pets or off-leash areas," says Dr. Rock. "The question is how to accommodate high levels of pet ownership in a way that benefits society as a whole."
"Fully 50% of the population in Canada has chosen to have a pet living with them. That is going to have an impact on health and well-being, not only for themselves but also for others."
– Dr. Melanie Rock, University of Calgary