Dog owners are estimated to be four times more likely than their peers to meet recommended physical activity guidelines, according to a study that highlights the role that dogs may have in helping to keep humans healthy.

It is recommended that adults should do at least 150 minutes of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity per week. Dog ownership is expected to encourage physical activity, but it has been unclear whether this effect occurs in all members of a dog-owning household, or whether dog walking replaces other forms of exercise.

Dr Carri Westgarth from University of Liverpool in the UK assessed the self-reported physical activity of 385 households. Dog owners walk more frequently and for longer periods than non-dog owners, according to the study published in the journal Scientific Reports. Moreover, dog walking in this population is undertaken in addition to, and not instead of, other physical activities.

The effects of dog ownership on physical activity levels in the UK reported in the present study are greater than those reported in previous studies of North American and Australian populations.For example, 64 per cent of dog owners in the new UK study reported that they walk with their dogs for at least 150 minutes per week, compared with only 27 per cent in a US study.

The study suggests that these discrepancies may be due to social and climatic differences, such as a higher proportion of outdoor dogs in the US and Australia than in the UK.

Our findings provide support for the role of pet dogs in promoting and maintaining positive health behaviours such as walking. Without dogs, it is likely that population physical activity levels would be much lower,” Westgarth said. “The health benefits of dog ownership should be recognised and facilitated through the provision of dog-supportive walking environments and pet-friendly housing; failure of planning and policy makers to provide these may significantly damage population levels of physical activity,” she said.