Did you know that Australia has one of the highest levels of pet ownership in the world?
Around 36% of households own a dog and 23% include a cat as part of the family. And then there are horses, guinea pigs, fish, birds . . .
The health benefits of pet ownership is an important topic therefore, and it’s been the subject of much research over the years.
A number of studies have shown physical health advantages to pet-ownership, such as lower levels of risk factors for heart disease compared to non-pet owners, including lower blood pressure and cholesterol. While recent research has queried this link, other studies confirm that owners of pets visit their GP less often for day-to-day health issues. Reasons for this association may be that a particular type of person may own a pet, or that dog-owners, for example, are more physically active because of regular dog-walking.
There’s no doubt, though, that many of us feel a benefit to our mental health from sharing our life with a pet – especially if we have been affected by depression or some other form of mental illness.
Cats, dogs, and other domestic creatures provide an unconditional, uncomplicated affection (unlike the complexities of human relationships). While this may not be how the animal actually ‘feels’ towards us, it is certainly how we perceive the relationship. This is strengthened by the physical nature of the bond with pets – imagine how many times a day you stroke your cat’s fur or pat your dog.
Owning a pet is also a responsibility. Whether it’s taking a dog for a walk, feeding, or emptying a cat’s litter tray, having a pet provides a sense of responsibility, routine, and purpose to the day – all important things to take us ‘out of ourselves’ if affected by depression, for example.
As well as being good companions, pets can help us to make contact with other people. When affected by mental illness, it’s common to feel cut off from other people or even unsure about making contact with them. Having a pet is a sure way to get talking to others, especially if you have a dog – there are few parks which do not have a group of regular dog-walkers who welcome anyone with four legs and their human companion.
Research also suggests the mental health benefits of pets for people going through troubled periods in life, such as widowhood or when recovering from a serious health problem. In the US, the Department of Veteran Affairs operates a Dog Therapy program to help returned service personnel who have post-traumatic stress disorder after tours in war zones.
Worrying about a pet’s welfare can cause extra stress if you have to go into hospital, however. It’s important, therefore to include pet care as part of a plan for if you or someone you care for becomes unwell and needs to spend some time as an in-patient on a mental health unit. In some areas, local programs can look after people’s pets while they are hospitalised, such as the Paws for Pet Therapy group in Melbourne’s east.