Why pet ownership can breed better health

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The various physical and psychological health advantages of pet ownership among Australia’s active seniors have been well documented. But what is lesser known is that they may also stop ballooning health budgets.

Australians are well known for their love of pets. With reports showing that 62% of households keep an animal, the country has one of the highest rates of pet ownership in the world.

According to a recent report by Animal Medicines Australia’s Pet Ownership in Australia, owners spent $12.2 billion in pet products and services in 2016, with dogs the most expensive animals costing an average $1,818 a year and cats $1,339.

The report also found that while the rate of pet ownership declined as people age, it only dropped slightly with less than half those aged 70 or older own a pet, compared to the 62 per cent average across all age groups.

The report noted that growing anecdotal evidence showed that pets could have an enormous impact on the quality of life of Australia’s ageing population, as shown in the increased use of therapy and assistance pets in aged care facilities and hospital.

Researchers have also reported that psychological benefits accrue from living with animals. These include studies showing that pet owners have higher self-esteem, more positive moods, more ambition, greater life satisfaction and lower levels of loneliness.

Celebrity vet, Dr Chris Brown, has been vocal in his efforts to get federal and state governments to consider tax rebates to encourage pet ownership in the hopes of stimulating savings in their burgeoning health budgets.

Data released in July showed that pet owners delivered $2 billion in public healthcare savings across Australia. While the individual health benefits of owning a pet are still being debated, The Healthcare Economics of Pets report noted that studies by the University of Melbourne showed pet owners visit the doctors 11 per cent less than non-pet owners.

As such the Keep Australia Pet Friendly campaign, of which Dr Brown is an ambassador, argues that as a result of this every pet owner saves the health system $700 per year in reducing the number of doctor visits and associated health costs.

Dr Brad Smith, a senior lecturer and head of Psychology at Central Queensland University, has dedicated his life to finding out more about animal behaviour and the relationships between humans and animals.

In 2012 Dr Smith published a paper ‘The ‘pet effect’ – health related aspects of companion animal ownership’ in which he noted companion animals can be helpful in practical ways for patients with weight problems, high blood pressure, susceptibility to stress and anxiety.

He says that having a pet, be it cat, dog, bird or rabbit is a great way to tackle depression and loneliness. This is especially true when partners pass away, or their owners are less mobile and unable to visit friends. In addition to encouraging owners to be more socially active, having a pet also provides purpose for their owners and is a reason to get out of the house for walks or to attend the vet.

That said, he also discovered they were not the silver bullet for health that many people are lead to believe. He argues that while the psychological benefits were greatest among vulnerable populations such as the elderly, the chronically ill and the socially isolated, these benefits could be hugely variable. Dr Smith said there was not enough evidence to prove the benefits of pet ownership.

His findings back up a 2011 paper by Harold Herzog from Western California University on the impact of pets on human health and wellbeing. Dr Herzog’s report found that for many people pets are profoundly pleasurable and a source of psychological support. However empirical studies of the effects of pets on human health and wellbeing had produced a mishmash of conflicting results.

“While pets are undoubtedly good for some people, there is presently insufficient evidence to support the contention that, as a group, pet owners are healthier or happier or that they live longer than non-pet owners” his report noted.

Despite this, Dr Smith says having a pet (especially a dog that you need to walk), encourages physical activity in aspects of pet care.

“There are also physiological benefits (such as lowered heart rates, and release of ‘feel good’ hormones) from being around and petting animals,” he says.

That said, it’s the responsible thing to not over emphasise the relationship between pets and health or “cherry pick” only the positive aspects, he says.

“The welfare of the pets is of upmost importance and some people may not be up for all that comes with ownership. Certainly, it would not be advisable to ‘prescribe’ pet ownership to people expecting all the positive benefits.”

However Dr Smith says although he considers himself a big supporter of retirement communities allowing pets, he also understands a reluctance by some to allow pets into their villages. “Not everyone likes pets/animals, and so a small community must consider the needs of all. The welfare of the animal must also be considered. We need to ensure the pets receive the best care available. I suppose the management team need to determine whether the benefits of pets to some, outweigh the negative aspects to all.”

Aveo communities are pet friendly, subject to approval. 

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