Paw-fect pals: How pets boost health and happiness

Welcoming a fur baby, feathered friend or scaly companion into your family can bring endless joy and love to your home, along with many health benefits.

To say Australians love their pets is an understatement.

We have one of the highest rates of pet ownership in the world – with an estimation of 28.7 million pets in roughly 7 million households, according to an Animal Medicines Australia report.

They give us companionship, unconditional  love, and a great reason to drag ourselves off the couch.

But the benefits don’t end there.

An increasing number of studies are revealing a wealth of other physical and psychological advantages to pet ownership.

Benefits of pets: They may boost cardiovascular health

Pets may melt our hearts, but they can also help make them stronger.

International studies have  demonstrated lower blood pressure and  the risk of hypertension, and even reduced  rates of obesity in pet owners.

RSPCA Australia senior scientific officer Dr Sarah Zito says pets keep us active.

“Dogs help us enjoy the outdoors and get regular exercise,” Dr Zito says.

Psychologist Melanie Jones says the boost to heart health is also down to hormones.

“Even just looking at your pet produces the feel-good hormone oxytocin, which lowers the stress hormone cortisol,” Melanie says.

Benefits of pets: They may help you live longer

They say an apple a day keeps the doctor away but owning a pet may help keep you away from the doctor.

2006 study conducted in Australia and Germany found pet owners had 15 per cent fewer annual visits to the doctor than their non-pet-owning counterparts.

And a meta-analysis of several studies found dog owners have a 24 per cent reduced rate of mortality and a 31 per cent lower risk of death by heart attack or stroke.

Benefits of pets: They can help monitor blood glucose

Dogs are a man’s best friend, but especially for the 134,000 Australians suffering from type 1 diabetes.

In a Medical Alert Dog program by the Australian Lions Hearing Dogs, these intelligent canines undergo training from a young age to recognise changes in a diabetic’s blood glucose.

Through scent, these dogs can know when to retrieve the necessary kit to help treat a low or high blood glucose level event.

Laura Harris, the program’s project coordinator and trainer, tells The House of Wellness TV these diabetic alert dogs are also taught to call for assistance by pressing an emergency button.

“It’s connected to a list of emergency contacts until someone picks up,” she says.

“It will prevent fatalities, save money in the healthcare system and also just limit the levels of mental distress that people feel from this condition.”

While this program is still under development, South Australian Eliza Bartlett is the first to be provided with a diabetic alert dog to help her cope with her condition.

“When I first got Sal, she alerted me on day one for having a hypo,” Eliza says.

“She has picked up on blood glucose levels before technology’s telling me they’re going low or before I’m feeling symptoms.”

Benefits of pets: Life can be happier

Pet owners are also much less likely to feel lonely and negative.

It’s not just people with four-legged friends – even watching Goldie swimming around his bowl can have a calming effect and may benefit wellbeing.

Dr Zito says research shows pets can help us cope with a range of negative emotions, including grief, stress, and loss.

In Melbourne’s Mornington Peninsula, a herd of retired racehorses are helping the community’s youth put a smile on their faces through equine assisted therapy.

Racing Hearts founder and practitioner Lisa Coffey says horses help to calm people because of their sensitive nature.

She also adds for the teenagers taking part in the 12-month mental health program, horses can help them regulate their emotions through encouraging them to express love and their feelings.

“Not only do they have healthier relationships with people in their lives but from an employer’s point of view, they are able to stay engaged with employment,” she says.

Benefits of pets: They can reduce risk of allergies

Having a pet – especially a dog – may help reduce allergies in children.

A US study found growing up with a dog in the house can boost a child’s immune system and reduce the likelihood of them developing an allergy by up to a third.

Meanwhile, recent research from Japan suggests children who were to a pet dog or cat since the early stages of infancy may be less likely to develop certain food allergies.

“Having a dog around during infancy may help to strengthen the immune system and may reduce the risk of allergies,” Dr Zito says.

Bonus benefit: People like pet people

Pets help you connect with other people and make you appear friendlier.

“Pets enhance social connectedness and social skills, and are a great conversation starter,” Dr Zito says.

People walking with dogs are perceived as more likeable and trustworthy and, even better, the act of walking produces oxytocin, which will make you feel more sociable and inclined to trust others, Melanie says.

“That all works together to mean you’re more likely to talk to people, and connect with people, if you are out walking a dog.”

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Written by Dimity Barber. Updated by Melissa Hong, June 2023.