It’s been a tough year for many Australians. Hot on the heels of a horror bushfire season, the COVID-19 crisis has turned daily life upside down and created health concerns and financial pressures. In uncertain days like these, many people are grateful for the comfort their pets can provide. So, how do our furry friends manage to give us such a boost when times get tough?
Australians love pets
According to a recent survey conducted by Animal Medicines Australia, 61% of Australian households currently have a pet – that’s one of the highest rates of pet ownership in the world. Dog owners stand at 40% while 27% of households keep a cat. More than half (60%) of those owners regard their pets as family members.
Studies have consistently shown that pet owners experience lower rates of depression, anxiety and stress than those who don’t have a fur friend in their life. So, just why is it pets have such a positive effect on our mental health, especially when the going is tough?
Psychiatrist Dr Claire Keating says the unconditional love they offer is a big part of the reason pet owners tend to enjoy a higher level of psychological wellbeing than folk who don’t keep an animal, or several. “Dogs, in particular, are almost always happy to see you, no matter what,” Dr Keating says.
They provide you with purpose
Owning a pet can also provide a feeling of belonging and purpose, which can be particularly important for people whose living circumstances suddenly change, such as losing a job unexpectedly, in sickness or during times of social distress.
Millions have had one or all of these experiences during the COVID-19 crisis as a result of the strict shutdown restrictions put in place by the government to slow the spread of the virus.
“Having something dependent on you that you need to provide care for can give you a sense of having meaningful activity in your day,” Dr Keating says. “The feeling you’re needed and that you play an important role for another creature is empowering.”
They get you out and about
Regular exercise also reduces stress levels and can help keep the blues at bay during challenging periods and pets are a great way to get you moving. A study published in medical journal The Lancet found individuals who exercised regularly reported having 43% fewer days of poor mental health than who did not.
For many pet owners, a dog waiting expectantly at the front door, tail wagging furiously, is the motivation they need to head out for a run, a long tramp or a leisurely stroll around the streets.
Doing so gets you out in the fresh air and into the community, chatting with neighbours and fellow dog walkers, which is a certain antidote to loneliness and social isolation, according to neuro-psychotherapist Joanne Wilson.
“As a first-time dog owner, I’m amazed at the unexpected ice-breaker my puppy creates with strangers in the park,” she says. “It’s quite natural to talk to, or admire, someone else’s pet before speaking to them!”
Like many people, dogs and cats are creatures of habit. If you’re spending more time than usual at home with your pets, sticking to their regular feeding and exercise routines can help them stay settled.
The power of a pat
Humans are tactile creatures who love the connection created by physical touch. Being deprived of the warmth and reassurance a pat on the back, an ‘it will be ok’ rub on the arm or an oxytocin-inducing hug can give has a devastating impact on our wellbeing in the long term, Wilson says.
While in recent times we’ve been encouraged to maintain a physical distance from friends and family who don’t live under the same roof, fortunately, those rules don’t apply to our four-legged friends, who’d struggle to stay 1.5 metres away from their beloved humans.
“We can underestimate how much touch communicates positive emotions – joy, love, gratitude and sympathy,” Wilson says. “The connection and warmth of patting and being cuddled by your pet is another wonderful means of meeting those needs.”
Living alone or in a small household can be lonely at times, particularly if you’re spending a lot of time at home.
Whether you’re feeling sociable or sad, a pet is always great company and can lift your spirits and add meaning and joy to the day.
The psycho-analysis pioneer Sigmund Freud once observed that ‘time spent with cats is never wasted’ and it’s not for nothing that dogs are known as people’s best friend.