Paws For Effect
Pets can have a surprising effect on your wellbeing.
‘Animals give us a sense of being needed and cared about, which makes them good for people who are vulnerable.’ Dr Janette Young, University of South Australia
People who walk dogs every day will have a good grasp of the benefits that can come from regular walking but, exercise aside, is there something else about dogs or other pets that’ s good for human health?
“The strongest evidence so far is for better mental health, and the effect seems to come from the relationship we have with animals,” says Dr Janette Young of the University of South Australia’s School of Health Sciences. “Animals don’t judge us; they give us a sense of being needed and cared about, which makes them good for people who are vulnerable, including those with a mental illness or chronic condition.”
Research has found that pet owners, especially dog owners, have healthier blood pressure and cope better with stress. While regular walking can partly explain this, Dr Young believes these benefits are more likely to come from the relationship itself, and the fact that animals help humans connect with each other. Studies suggest there could be a link between having social connections and a reduced risk of heart disease.
“There’s a sense of touch and intimacy with another living being that can come from cuddling an animal,” says Dr Young. “Animals also help us create social networks. When you walk a dog, for instance, you meet other dog owners.”
Pets are also emerging as helpful for people recovering from a suicide attempt. “When I’ve been talking to older people, some have said it was their pets that prevented them from suicide. Australia’s suicide rate is double the road toll. If it turns out that pet ownership is helpful, we could explore that finding,” says Dr Young, who believes the role pets play in our wellbeing is underrated and deserves more research.
She’s not the only one. Associate Professor Emmanuel Stamatakis of the University of Sydney is now researching the effects of dog ownership on human health.
“There’s a perception that dog owners are physically active, yet 40 per cent of Australian dog owners don’t walk their dogs, so if there’s a health benefit it’s not necessarily coming from walking,” says Professor Stamatakis. “If we can learn more about the health effects of having a dog, it could support programs promoting dog ownership as a way of increasing physical activity, improving health and preventing cardiovascular disease and mental illness.”