Cute kittens make all your Facebook photos that much more likeable but pets benefit your wellbeing in many more substantial ways. By Jenny Ringland
You can thank the goldfish for that. Here’s why they, and other pets, are the key to complete wellbeing
If you’re currently weighing up the pros and cons of introducing a pet into your family, there’s an argument that sits convincingly on the affirmative side. We’ve known about the physical benefits of pet ownership for a while, with many physicians recommending owning a dog as the best way to ensure daily exercise. However, it’s not just canines that are good for our waistline – there are a range of physical, psychological and social advantages to looking after a furry friend of any kind.
“It’s scientifically proven that owning a pet can reduce stress, anxiety and depression,’’ Pet Industry Association of Australia CEO Mark Fraser says.
“They can lower your blood pressure and possibly decrease the risk of heart disease and stroke due to increased physical activity that many pet owners, and especially dog owners, are involved with.’’
A FURRY LITTLE FRIENDSHIP BUILDER
The companionship of a pet has far-reaching benefits to their owners, and also the wider community, Fraser says.
“Pets are great company. That simple art of taking the dog for a walk, the fresh air, the neighbourly chats... pets are generally great icebreakers,’’ he says of the ease pet-owners have in striking up conversations.
“Pet owners tend to be more empathetic and caring because the pets help build their confidence. They have higher self-esteem in situations they otherwise might not feel comfortable with.’’
The research results of University of Western Australia associate professor Lisa Wood supports this point. She headed a study of 2700 adults in Australia and the US on the role pets play in improving social relationships.
“We found that more pet owners than non-pet owners got to know new people since moving to their current neighbourhood,” Wood says. “And of the pet owners who had got to know people in their neighbourhood because of their pet, more than half considered one or more of the people they met to be friends.”
HEART AND MIND HELPERS
The physical benefits of a pet companion are particularly helpful for the elderly, who are at risk of social isolation and stress, and people with heart conditions or chronic illness. According to a 2012 study review published in Australian Family Physician, these vulnerable groups are the most likely to experience cardiovascular and mental health benefits.
Aussie veterinary specialists report that pet owners are less
likely to experience loneliness and depression because of the fellowship and the sense of purpose the animals create.
What’s more, research also shows that having pets can improve communication for elderly patients with Alzheimer’s and dementia. A study in the journal Clinical Gerontologist showed that just 10 minutes spent with cats was enough to boost meaningful communication for women living with dementia.
CARE FOR KIDS
Pet ownership also impacts positively on children, teaching them great lessons about responsibility and empathy, which helps them develop into confident young adults.
Spokesperson for the RSPCA Amanda Diaz says, “Those who have pets, including children or adolescents, have been shown to have higher self-esteem. Teenagers who own pets have a more positive outlook on life and report less [ incidences of] loneliness, restlessness, despair and boredom.’’
Her sentiments are echoed by results of a study of 500 people by Tufts University in the US. The young adults who had grown up with pets were found to be more confident, competent and caring than those who were pet-less.
There’s also evidence furry friends can improve the health of children. According to research published in the Journal of Paediatrics, babies who live with dogs in their first year of life may be less prone to developing respiratory illnesses. In the study of 400 children, 44 per cent of babies with pets were less prone to ear infections and 29 per cent were less likely to need antibiotics. They also had more healthy weeks in their first year than bubs who had no contact with pets. Cats were also found to improve health, but not as effectively as dogs.
If you can’t accommodate a pet permanently at home, pet sharing services are available – see dogshare.com.au.