The benefits of pet therapy
Updated January 2023 | 3 min read
Expert contributor Jacquie Rand, executive director at the Australian Pet Welfare Foundation
Words by Charmaine Yabsley
Pets aren’t just cute to cuddle. Did you know that having or playing with a pet can help you recover from illness and stay healthy?
Australia has one of the highest rates of pet ownership in the world, according to the RSPCA, with around 60% of us owning an animal. A survey from La Trobe University also found that one in five Aussie families got a new cat or dog during the pandemic, often to help with family wellbeing.
Research supports the physical and mental health benefits of owning a pet. “Contact with pets is a source of support and wellbeing for people of all ages,” says Emeritus Professor Jacquie Rand, executive director at the Australian Pet Welfare Foundation. She said there were also benefits for kids. “Pets can have a special role in healthy child development and offer social and emotional [support].”
Why owning a pet is good for you
Research published in the American Journal of Public Health shows dog owners unsurprisingly have increased levels of physical activity. Other studies have supported the variety of health benefits of regular walks, from boosting mood to reducing the risk of chronic disease. And dog owners visit a doctor 15% less often than people without a dog, according to the journal Social Indicators Research.
“Studies have proven that exercising with a dog can result in weight loss, increased fitness and reduced risk of cardiovascular disease,” says Prof Rand. “Dogs can also increase immunity to allergies and improve pulse rates and blood pressure by decreasing stress.”
How to choose the right pet for you
Choosing a pet for your family is a big commitment, after all they may be in your life for 10-15 years. RSPCA Australia recommends asking these essential questions first:
- Am I prepared to care for the animal for their whole life?
- Can I afford a pet?
- Do I understand how to care for a pet?
- Do I have time to care for a pet?
- Do I live in suitable accommodation with adequate space for a pet?
- Will a pet fit into my lifestyle and priorities?
There are other aspects to consider, like costs for vet bills, who will look after your pet if you go on holidays, and if anybody in your family is allergic to any animals.
The age of your children is also something to consider, as some breeds don’t like a lot of noise. Owning a pet can be a great way to teach older kids responsibility, as they can help with feeding and putting out water bowls. Older children can also take a dog out for walks and help share the responsibilities that having a family pet brings.
Animal therapy for mental health
The physical health benefits may seem obvious, but studies show pet ownership can also improve our mental health.
“Animals can create calming effects for their owners because they’re a source of non-judgemental social support,” says Prof Rand.
It’s this non-judgemental environment that can relieve stress and loneliness.
“Studies show that animals can act as stress buffers to decrease the effects of anxiety,” says Prof Rand. “The ‘feel good’ hormone, oxytocin, is released when people are in close contact with their pets, which reduces stress hormones and explains feelings of relaxation.”
And it’s not just dogs that are beneficial to our health; many animals offer benefits in unique ways. In one study, a group of stressed adults were told to pet a rabbit, a turtle or toy animals. The toy animals provided no stress relief. But stroking an animal, regardless of whether it was furry or hard-shelled, relieved stress. This was true even among non-animal lovers.
Benefits of pet therapy
Many healthcare providers are embracing this link between wellbeing and animals. In some hospitals, aged care facilities and rehabilitation centres around Australia, animals are regular visitors, bringing much-needed smiles and relief to patients and residents.
Research has shown that pet therapy for the elderly can help to increase social interaction and self-esteem. The presence of an animal also benefits those with Alzheimer’s or other forms of dementia by decreasing agitation and improving quality of life and relationship skills.
How your pet can help others
As a dog owner, volunteering as a pet therapist can be rewarding. Allowing others to meet your pup makes you feel good, too.
Sharon Stewart, CEO at Paws Pet Therapy, has seen many pet therapy volunteers come through her doors. Her company supports and trains these volunteers and their pets to deliver therapy visits to people with a range of needs, like people with a disability or dementia.
Practise being a pet parent
What do you do if you can’t own a pet? How can you still reap the rewards? Anneke van den Broek, founder and CEO of pet care business Rufus & Coco, says there are several ways to get the health benefits of pet ownership without the long-term commitment.
“There are numerous websites and apps that have made it possible to borrow other people’s pets for anything from an hour to several months,” she says.
“Apps like Pawshake and Mad Paws allow you to pet-sit for a duration that suits your lifestyle. You can walk, pet-sit or house-sit and enjoy the benefits of extra exercise, socialisation and companionship.”
Anneke adds that if you have the flexibility to care for a pet a bit longer, organisations like the RSPCA, Guide Dogs and animal rescue groups are often in need of extra help.
“Without volunteers, we couldn’t exist and so we always welcome more. It’s a great way to get hands on with animals and for both parties to enjoy the health benefits.”
The importance of pet insurance
HCF Pet Insurance* can help with the cost of your cat or dog’s eligible vet bills (providing up to 80% back^). You can pick a policy that’s right for your pet, and we offer a range of excess options, from zero to $200.
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* All HCF members are eligible for at least 10% discount on HCF Pet Insurance. HCF Ruby and Diamond members get a 15% discount. Existing Manchester Unity Pet Insurance policies are not eligible for discounts under HCF Thank You. Visit the HCF Thank You page for further information. Where relevant, increased discount will be applied automatically at first renewal after advancement in HCF Thank You tier. HCF Pet Insurance is issued by The Hollard Insurance Company Pty Ltd ABN 78 090 584 473 (AFSL 241436). The insurance is distributed and promoted by The Hospitals Contribution Fund of Australia Limited (HCF) ABN 68 000 026 746 (AFSL 241414) and arranged and administered by PetSure (Australia) Pty Ltd ABN 95 075 949 923 (AFSL 420183). Any advice provided is general only and does not take into account your individual objectives, financial situation or needs. Consider the Product Disclosure Statement and Target Market Determination, available at hcf.com.au/insurance/pet, before deciding if the product is right for you and please do not assume that pet insurance and health insurance are similar. HCF may receive a commission of up to 17% of the premium for promoting HCF Pet Insurance policies. For more information, contact HCF on 1800 630 681 or email@example.com. HCF Pet Insurance is not part of HCF's health insurance business. Please do not assume that pet insurance and health insurance are similar.
^ Policy Terms and Conditions, limits, sub-limits, exclusions, excesses and waiting periods apply.
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