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The Health Benefits of Having Pets


Nothing makes a dog-lover feel better after a long day than their dog’s smiling face and wagging tail. And the unconditional love you may experience when your cat entwines itself affectionately around your legs can help lift your mood after a long day. Some pet owners may tell you how their beloved animals have helped influence their well-being, but is there any science behind the stories?

The potential psychological, physical and social benefits of creature companionship are causing some doctors to go beyond recommending pet ownership, to even inviting their furry friends into their practices. Six Australian psychologists and psychology practices share their views on how animal interactions might help benefit your wellbeing.

Social Connectivity

Cassandra Dunn: Practicing what she preaches, clinical and coaching psychologist Cassandra’s family includes a menagerie of rescued animals; including dogs, cows, chickens and a cat. She believes the family’s animals make great playmates for her daughter and also help teach the whole family empathy and responsibility.

The Science: Cassandra believes that pet ownership can have positive effects on wellbeing – not just psychologically, but physically and socially too. She expounds on the stress-reducing effect that patting a dog or watching fish swim in an aquarium can have, reporting that it may even help to lower blood pressure.

But it’s the social connectivity that can come from pet ownership, which may help improve your wellbeing and mood, according to Dunn. The obligation most people feel when tending to their pets’ health often means they are more likely to get out and into their community. ‘Dog owners in particular tend to be a lot more [physically] active [than people who don’t have one],’ says Dunn, ‘and pet ownership [can help] provide great opportunities to meet and chat with people in your neighbourhood.’ The people you meet as part of dog training or simply the other regular dog walkers in the park can provide a new social network, helping you feel part of the community. This is especially important for people living alone and the elderly, who may not have many other social interactions.

Foster Healthy Relationships

Mullum Road Clinic: The psychologists at this family-orientated clinic offer a range of specialties, including Animal Assisted Therapy (AAT). The four furry friends on the staff are more than just cheery faces, they have all completed a certified AAT course with their psychologist owners. The chief duties of ‘therapy dogs’, Casper, Parti, Bronson, and Milo, include building rapport with clients, particularly with young people, as well as helping to reduce anxiety and stress in counselling sessions.

The Science: The specialists at Mullum believe that apart from potentially helping lower blood pressure, anxiety and stress, therapy dogs may also help teach empathy and help develop appropriate interpersonal and social skills. When some clients witness how a psychologist treats their dog, and how in turn the dog responds, it’s helps demonstrate how one’s behaviour can affect others, and may help act as a sounding board on which to model their own relationships both with animals and other people in their lives.

Create a Sense of Purpose

New View Psychology (NVP): Although they have a diverse portfolio of specialities that they focus on, it’s treating anxiety, depression, and stress where the team of psychologists at New View Psychology see pets having a positive impact. As well as implementing a range of different treatments for these issues, psychologists at NVP suggest that owning an animal may have some positive effects on our mental health. They assert that caring for a pet may help to relieve the symptoms associated with anxiety and depression, as well as being a source of comfort.

The Science: As well as helping to minimise loneliness and providing companionship, pets may also help to increase a person’s sense of purpose. Creating a regular routine and a sense of responsibility may be helpful in managing the symptoms of depression and anxiety as well as being beneficial for general wellbeing. A pet’s need for regular feeding times and exercise can impose a routine in your life. The care a pet requires from its owner is often paid back through the pet’s loyalty to the owner. The psychologists at NVP add that when the whole family is involved in caring for a pet, it can act as a catalyst to help bond the family closer together.

Motivate You to Move

Nexus Psychology: The psychologists at Nexus Psychology (meaning a connection or meeting point) practise a variety of therapeutic approaches tailored to the individual and personal requirements of their clients. Conversations with clients who have pets, have led psychologists at Nexus Psychology to realise the positive impact pets can have on someone who is feeling down.

The Science: The sense of responsibility that comes from having to take care of an animal, can help to encourage clients who are feeling low or lethargic to draw on their own strength, and to get outside and walk in the fresh air. The psychologists at Nexus Psychology often recommend going outdoors and spending time in nature, and walking a dog can be a good incentive for leaving the house, the psychologists emphasise. Doing this routinely, daily if possible, can have a positive impact on wellbeing as well as helping keeping you physically active. When at home, the company of another creature can help create a sense of calm. One client at the practice refers to her cat as a ‘therapy cat’. Nexus Psychology explains that the benefits of owning a pet can be both significant and long lasting, ‘Patting and stroking an animal [can] lead to a feeling of relaxation for both the owner and the pet.’

Show You Unconditional Loyalty

Psych Professionals: Franki Treccase [EC1] at Psych Professionals is a great advocate of pet ownership for her clients, as well as for her staff, friends, and family. The team and clients all benefit from using therapy dogs in the practice. Treccase sees the benefits of pet ownership and the animal-human bond play out each day in her role as pet owner and clinical psychologist. 


The Science: There’s a growing body of information about how pets may help to improve their owners’ physical health, says Treccase, but in her field of work the psychological benefits are most visible. The benefits are evident to Treccase in terms of the results she sees first-hand, as well as in the growing body of research on the topic of tackling mental health issues from all angles. She explains the feel-good factor that she believes may come from being surrounded by animals: ‘Being in the presence of a pet may result in lower levels of stress hormones and possibly, higher levels of oxytocin – often referred to as the “love hormone”. This combination can help make us feel less stressed and more relaxed.’ 


Reduce the Risk of Experiencing Symptoms of Depression

Strategic Psychology: The team of trained psychologists at Strategic Psychology care first and foremost about the mental and emotional well-being of their clients. They aim to equip their clients with the skills, strategies and resilience required to cope with the difficulties life poses. They see the main benefit of pet ownership being related to the increased sense of comfort and companionship, suggesting that pets may be associated with decreased feelings of depression.

The Science: The psychologists say, ‘Owning a pet [may] [EC2] contribute to improvements in overall mental health and wellness and is also linked to increased physical activity, and social interaction.’ These factors, combined with helping to reduce stress and loneliness, may contribute to an overall reduced risk of experiencing the symptoms of depression, believe the psychologists.

The benefits of pet ownership are still being explored. Long known as man’s best friend, it’s no longer just at home where creature comforts are paying off. More psychologists are getting on board, integrating animals into their therapies and practices, with some positive results in terms of the wellbeing of all involved. Just another reason to get a pet if you don’t have one, or give your cuddly companions an extra pat if you do.

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