Pet subject inspires some big thinking

Our furry companions make us happier and can save the planet - that's the grand vision of one academic.

Our furry companions make us happier and can save the planet - that's the grand vision of one academic.

EVERY dog owner knows being welcomed home by a dog's full-body wiggle rarely fails to warm the heart. And although nobody ever really owns a cat, coming home to a purring pet is, well, the cat's miaow.

Owning a pet is good for you. Studies show pets help make people happier and healthier, lowering blood pressure and cholesterol, mitigating obesity and depression, even delaying ageing.

But the benefits accrue for communities too, according to La Trobe University psychologist Pauleen Bennett - and not just by saving Australia's health system an estimated $2.2 billion a year.

''Pets help us to feel better about our lives, and when we feel better about our lives, we feel more motivated to do great things for our community,'' Associate Professor Bennett says. She may be a case in point. Imagine a future with more pets in our cities, schools and workplaces - where Buster might sit by you in the office, and Polly is part of the classroom. Imagine no bans on pets in nursing homes and strata-title buildings. Rental housing may even allow creatures great and small ?

This ''furry future'' is no pipedream for Professor Bennett. ''My grand plan to save the planet is to have more pets,'' she says - that is, appropriate pets with responsible owners.

As the new president of the International Society for Anthrozoology - a field of interdisciplinary research into human-animal interactions - she is garnering support for her case.

Finding Australian scholars who want work in the area is easy, she says, but securing funding is tough, so she's about to launch the Australian Anthrozoology Research Foundation to do just that.

''While pet owners know how great their animals are, it's only by doing this research that we can gather evidence to convince politicians that we need to find ways to put pets back into people's lives.''

The focus is on positive psychology, which is less about tackling mental illness than boosting mental health. And her plan has legs, according to the 30-odd academics and professionals from fields of human-animal interaction who gathered in Melbourne recently to grapple with the thought.

It's not just about putting pets into people's lives: it means reversing a downward trend.

''We have 33 million pets in Australia,'' Professor Bennett says, so about two-thirds of households, mostly families, have at least one pet. That is one of the highest rates of ownership in the world, but Australia's pet population stopped growing about a decade ago, according to the Australian Companion Animal Council. Australian Bureau of Statistics data show the number of dogs fell almost 10 per cent between 1994 and 2009, while the cat population dropped nearly 20 per cent.

Not everyone wants a pet, but research shows most Australians do. Eight in 10 have lived with a pet, and of those who don't, more than half wish they did. So what's going wrong?

''Our changing lifestyles are making it more difficult to own pets,'' Professor Bennett says. ''As our society becomes more urbanised, the opportunities for contact with animals are becoming limited. So we need to make it easier for people to own pets or interact with animals in other ways.''

Those at the Melbourne workshop agreed, noting issues such as tougher pet legislation, higher-density living, ''no pets'' policies, community problems associated with nuisance pets, and general ignorance of the ways positive planning for pet owners is good for all sectors of society.

Russell Harrison, general manager of veterinary services at Lort Smith Animal Hospital in North Melbourne, says society needs to ''normalise'' the relationship people have with their pets. ''People shouldn't feel guilty if they grieve if their pet dies ? or if they want to cancel their holiday if their pet is sick,'' Dr Harrison says.

''What we believe as an organisation at Lort Smith is animals and people should be together. So what we want in the future is a society that facilitates that.''

Petcare Information and Advisory Service consultant Tam Shardlow says in an ageing population, seniors deserve a ''civic right'' to own a pet. ''We've got people moving from their family home into nursing homes or similar, and if they can't take dogs, they can't take cats, they have to get their pets put down,'' she says. ''They lose a very important relationship in their lives that actually gives them meaning.''

Children are losing opportunities to be with animals too, according to educator Bernadette Nicholls. While studying for her PhD and working as a schoolteacher in Epping, she ran classes with the help of dog Gus - proving a dog can positively affect learning.

Professor Bennett says although pets take time and effort, and vet bills can be costly, there are ways around it: sharing a pet between families, choosing an older dog that requires less exercise or opting for another animal.

''Miniature goats make wonderful pets for people with small yards (have two, so that they have company) and rats, rabbits and even goldfish can make great pets for people who can't spend a lot of time at home.

''As a community there are many different strategies we could try to make pet ownership work.''

A former neuroscientist, Professor Bennett first built a hub for anthrozoological research at Monash University, with six PhD students.

Vanessa Rohlf looked at ways to make people more responsible pet owners (her results suggest social pressure is more effective than anything else), while Kate Mornement reviewed behaviour tests used for thousands of shelter dogs to ensure they are suitable pets. Tiffani Howell is studying how dogs think - for instance, testing if dogs can use a mirror to find hidden food (they can) - while Tammie King is exploring what makes an ''ideal'' companion dog and Mia Cobb is testing a program of welfare enrichment for working dogs housed in kennels.

Last year Professor Bennett took up a position in Bendigo (she now has room to keep 10 dogs and a cat) at La Trobe, where she has a student surveying more than 1000 people on their relationship with their parrot, and another looking at how pets can aid the coping skills of people fighting cancer.

''There are five things that make life better for people: positive emotion, engagement, relationships, meaning and achievement. It turns out pets tick all of these boxes,'' she says. ''If we ask people 'who is the closest person in your life?' it's often the dog or the cat, more so than the spouse.

''But there are lots of depressed people in Australia who got out of bed this morning because they needed to feed the dog or the cat ? which I think is really important in our community, because in a lot of ways we're so fractured and we lack those sort of relationships.''

Science is starting to pinpoint why pets are good for us, she adds. ''Evidence now suggests that interacting with a pet makes us feel better in part because it stimulates production of important brain chemicals like oxytocin.

''So when we reach out to stroke a dog, our oxytocin level goes up - but so does the dog's.''

Related Articles