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The Mental Health Benefits of Pet Ownership

The joy of having a pet isn’t new to most Australians: we have one of the highest rates of pet ownership in the world. In fact, our pets are such positive influences on our lives that one study found that Australian ownership of cats and dogs saved approximately $3.86 billion in health expenditure over one year. 

Time and time again science has shown that pets have an overwhelmingly positive effect on our mental health. Just petting an animal for a short period can boost your mood and sense of well-being! Owning one can reduce feelings of isolation, feelings of loneliness and even depression.

With October being Mental Health Month, let’s take a moment to recognise all the mental health benefits of pet ownership!
Young girl in a red woollen dress runs with a Shiba Inu dog away from camera
Studies have found pet owners, including children and adolescents to have higher levels of self-esteem. Teenagers who own pets have a more positive outlook on life and report less loneliness, restlessness, despair and boredom.

This is in part due to companionship and touch. One study found that even just a few minutes of stroking our pet dog prompts a release of "feel good" hormones such as 
serotonin, prolactin and oxytocin.

The physical contact we have with pets can lower heart rates and increasingly pets are being used in therapy, childcare and in aged care homes to improve well-being.

Dogs in particular have been known to assist with mental health. A study found that when nursing home residents were left alone with a dog, they felt less lonely than when other people joined in on the visit. After all, pets don’t judge or argue. They adore you no matter how you look or feel!

Elderly woman with white hair hugs a small black and white dog in her arms
These benefits have been so widely recognised that dogs are frequently used as assistance dogs, aiding disabled people and those with mental health conditions. In Australia, you can apply for an assistance dog for autism, dementia, physical disabilities or mental conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder. Puppies chosen for their good temperament are trained for around two years to become an assistance dog. 

Assistance Dogs Australia (ADA) have shared some of the heart-warming stories of those whose lives have been completely turned around by an assistance dog, such as Andrew, an ex-military PTSD sufferer who was struggling with daily life. 

The father of three’s future looked bleak, until Benji, an assistance dog came into the picture. Benji helps with Andrew’s anxieties of being out in public and has reduced his feelings of anger and aggression. Andrew shared with ADA, “My wife has said that I have become a lot calmer and even the kids have noticed the difference. I have been laughing more often, too, something that I had lost. Benji came into our lives just when we needed him the most and it feels like it was meant to be, as if we’ve always known each other.” 

Pets are great caregivers. Even those that aren’t trained as assistance dogs, will keep us company when we’re sick or feeling down. They can make us feel safe while we’re home alone and they keep an eye on the house while we’re out. The countless videos of pets looking after and even saving their owners and other animals is a testament to this.

Having a pet to love and care for is a huge responsibility, and with this responsibility comes a sense of purpose. The routines we build around our pets - providing food, water, exercise and socialisation - also help to improve our health. 

Building daily routines has been found to benefit mental health by improving cognitive functioning and decreasing the likelihood of developing major depression and bipolar disorder. Walking them, feeding them and training them gives us purpose and motivation.

Then, there are the obvious benefits such as increased exercise from having a pet to walk or play with, particularly with dogs. Doing regular physical activity is a great way to help prevent or manage mild depression. Dogs can be great motivators and personal trainers, never wanting to miss a training session no matter the weather.
Pitbull dog grins from ear to ear with his eyes closed whilst crossing a bridge
Walking also has added social benefits. Whether you are meeting new people at the park, through pet training, competitions, walking groups or even just taking them for a stroll around the block – pets are a great conversation starter. More and more workplaces are welcoming pets too, giving you and your colleagues something to bond over!

Lastly, pets can even help boost our immune systems and reduce our susceptibility to pet allergies, which can improve our quality of life and well-being. Growing up with a dog (and other pets to a lesser extent) during infancy can help to strengthen the immune system, with studies showing that growing up with a pet in your first year of life reduces your chances of having pet allergies and your risk of developing asthma. Another study found that petting a dog for just 18 minutes raised levels of immune system antibodies in college students' saliva.

With the countless mental and physical benefits pet ownership brings, we are on a mission to make sure pets are welcomed in Australia, beginning with changing the rental laws in each state to make having a pet more accessible

Victoria’s rental reforms have recently passed, making it harder for landlords to include “no pets” clauses, and we’re hoping other states will follow suit. These “no pets” clauses lead to thousands of pets being given up to pounds and rescue organisations every year. 

When we welcome pets into Australian homes, we are not only saving thousands of animal’s lives, but are clearly improving the lives of everyday people whose pets offer emotional and social connection and boost confidence and well-being. 

written by Anneke van den Broek, founder and CEO of Rufus & Coco - October 2018 

Lead image: Rufus & Coco (supplied)

About Anneke van den Broek

Anneke van den Broek CEO of Rufus & Coco and her dog lying on a beach
Anneke van den Broek founded Rufus & Coco in 2008 to create a different kind of pet brand – one that offered inspired, trusted and original products. Having owned more than 40 pets in her life, Anneke had experienced the frustration of seeing unfashionable and poorly made products, as well as a lack of natural alternatives. Identifying this gap in the market, along with the sweeping global trend towards pet humanization, she set about developing quality ‘Best of Breed’ products that would make a genuine difference in the lives of pets and their owners.

With a background in senior marketing and management roles within leading Australian businesses: Blackmores, David Jones, Pacific Brands and Apparel Group, Anneke combined her deep knowledge of retail, fashion and health, with her passion for pets to launch a truly unique brand.

Anneke has been recognised as one of Australia’s 50 most influential women entrepreneurs by Rare Birds, in 2012 was the recipient of the Anita Prabhu Women in Business Award and in 2016 was inducted into the Australian Business Woman’s Hall of Fame. Now heading up ‘Women of EO’ (Sydney faction of Entrepreneur’s Organisation) she mentors high growth startups to build multi-million-dollar businesses.

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