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Can keeping pets improve your health?

If you’re a pet owner, you’ll know firsthand the true joy that pets can bring into your life. Pets offer unconditional love. They don’t judge you, they won’t yell at you if you forget to put the rubbish out, they don’t care what you watch on TV or that you’re putting on a little weight. By simply taking care of their needs, offering them shelter, food and comfort, you’ll have a loyal, loving companion.

There’s no denying pets and their owners share a special connection. We’ve all heard stories of pets that have travelled great distances to be reunited with those they love, and inspiring stories of the courage of pets that have selflessly put themselves in harm’s way to protect their owners.

According to the Australian Companion Animal Council (ACA), Australia has one of the highest rates of pet ownership in the world. More than 63 per cent of us own a pet. There are more than 3.7 million playful pooches, 2.2 million furry felines and over 20 million other pets ranging from birds, fish and turtles to ponies, bunnies, guinea pigs and more.

Is it love?

Is this unique bond between a pet and its family a form of love? “That depends on how you define love,” says Dr Kersti Seksel, specialist in behavioural medicine and president of the Australian Companion Animal Council.

“But the simple answer would be yes. Certainly from a human’s perspective, we are social beings and enjoy sharing relationships with others,” she says.

Most children love pets and pets, in turn, teach children about the responsibility of caring for another living creature.

“Pets also give people a sense of community and belonging — and in many cases, a reason for being,” says Dr Seksel. “Pets also offer companionship and comfort, which are especially important if you’re on your own,” she adds.

“If you are living alone, having another warm, living creature there to greet you when you arrive home — a companion animal such as a dog or a cat — can certainly fulfil that human need to be wanted.”

Pets give your health a boost

Having a pet share your life is also good for your overall health, according to the experts. The human-animal bond is a dynamic relationship that benefits both owner and pet physically and psychologically, says Melbourne behaviour veterinarian Dr Lewis Kirkham.

“Numerous studies have shown that for the pet owner there’s a decreased sense of loneliness, reduced stress levels, lower blood pressure, and lower heart rate and cholesterol levels.”

“People who own pets are also less likely to be unwell — they suffer from fewer headaches and colds and have fewer visits to their GPs,” he says.

Pets can also play an important role in childhood development, according to Dr Lewis. “It’s been shown that children who have pets in their household grow up with higher self-esteem; they have greater empathy for their classmates and better social skills,” he adds.

Having a pet can also help us to live longer. “Often if one partner in a relationship has died the other will survive longer if they have a pet because they have someone else to look after and care for,” says Dr Seksel.

The power of touch

The therapeutic effect pets have in our lives is profound. They can help those with physical and emotional disabilities, the sick and the elderly. Dr Seksel has worked with dogs in aged-care facilities and seen firsthand the dramatic difference a pet can make to their lives. “Pet therapy opens up barriers for the elderly. Sometimes, people with Alzheimer’s may not be able to communicate with anyone but you take a dog in to visit them and they will communicate with the dog,” she says.

For elderly people living in cold climates, the love they have for their pets can sometimes be credited with saving their lives. “In countries like the UK, many elderly people died during the winters because they didn’t have the money to heat their homes, but if they had a dog or a cat they didn’t want the dog or cat to get cold, so they turned on the heating. Or they’d go and buy milk and food for their pet so their pet wouldn’t go hungry and, of course, that meant they’d have milk for a cup of tea, too.”


Pet love through the ages

Our love affair with all things cute and cuddly isn’t a new phenomenon. For many thousands of years, companion animals have played a big part in our lives. Archeological evidence has unearthed dog skeletons in and around human societies in China, Europe and the Middle East that are more than 6000 years old. In another recent archeological discovery in Ain Mallaha in Northern Israel, the 10,000 year old skeleton of an elderly woman was discovered buried with her arm around a small puppy.

Nothing illustrates the strong human-animal bond more than the reverence bestowed on felines by Egyptian civilisations centuries ago. Cats were worshiped and considered to symbolise poise and dignity. “In Ancient Egypt they revered their cats to such an extent, if your cat died you shaved off your left eyebrow as a sign of mourning,” says Dr Seksel.

You can’t put a price on love

According to consumer organisation CHOICE, owning a pet these days will put a fair dent in your wallet. On the whole, Australians part with more than $4.6 billion each year on pet care products and services. Apart from one-off costs such as the purchase price of your pet, you also have to consider microchipping and desexing. There are ongoing expenses such as food, grooming, regular vet check-ups, tick and flea control, holiday boarding costs and any unforeseen veterinary costs. For the average medium-sized dog these can add up to $2000 a year; cats are marginally less.

Horses are by far among the most expensive animals to keep and at the other end of the scale a fighting fish will only set you back a few dollars and cost as little as 20 cents a day to care for. Mind you, fighting fish are rarely up for a cuddle.

A touch of the exotic

While cats, dogs and birds are the traditional pets of choice, these days more and more pet owners are opting for all kinds of critters, including some it might seem hard to imagine getting up close and personal with! There are snakes, hermit crabs and even pet spiders, ferrets, rats and more.

So why are we seeing an increase in non-traditional pets? According to the experts, most people still love traditional companion animals such as dogs and cats but with more people choosing apartment living and with the busier lives we lead, people are choosing pets that don’t require as much space or ongoing care.

Diva doggies

For many pampered pets getting out there and strutting their stuff in the latest designer pet labels is just a part of life. It’s not just pricey pedigrees that have owners parting with wads of cash — mutts and moggies are dressed by their loving owners in a diverse range of outfits.

Nadine Packer established designer doggie store Fuppies in 2002 after making outfits for her dog Pugsley. “I really enjoy designing the outfits and the business is really booming — we are doubling every year,” she says. Ms Packer is not only making outfits for pooches, she’s whipped up designer clothing for rabbits and goats, has made a hat for a cow and is currently outfitting a couple of horses.

In the pet fashion stakes you’ll find everything from bridal wear, tuxedos, glamorous ruffled outfits with matching sandals and pearls to t-shirts, leisure suits, shimmery tulle dresses, boardies for the boys, seasonal costumes and much more. “Designer wear for dogs is not just about glamorous fashion and lots of bling — there is also a range of practical waterproof raincoats and fleece coats to keep your pet warm, and outfits that come with harnesses for taking your dog for a walk,” says Ms Packer.

So why do pet owners go to such lengths to pamper their pooches? “They love their pets. For some people, their pets are just like their children and they want to spoil them,” she says. Turn on the television or flick through a gossip magazine and chances are you’ll see a celebrity accompanied by a designer doggie suitably outfitted peering out of the top of his owner’s designer handbag.

“We don’t really go that fancy here,” she says. “I mainly find people dress their dogs up for special occasions and the dogs love it.” Even so, the idea of dressed-up pets accompanying their owners has been around for decades. In the 1950s, stylishly dressed women in pencil skirts, gloves and pearls would always leave the house accompanied by their impeccably groomed Afghan or Poodle. In those days, they didn’t pop them in a handbag.

So are we going too far in the new millennium playing dress-ups with our pets? “If a dog has been raised since it was a puppy being dressed up, then that’s the social norm for them — they know no different,” says Dr Seksel. “There are dogs that have fine coats and feel the cold, so dressing them to keep them warm really is a welfare issue; and there are the dogs who ride around in open-top cars wearing “doggles” (sunglasses for dogs) that actually protect their eyes. In some cases, it might just look like fashion accessories but these people are looking after the welfare of their dogs,” she says.

The passing of your animal companion

Just as pets can bring us profound happiness, the tragedy of losing a pet can be for many a heart-wrenching and grief-filled journey. Pets are much-loved family members and their death can have a deep impact on all the family. When a person loses a pet, they can experience many emotions, says animal bereavement counsellor, Jude Michaels. “You will probably feel a very deep sense of loss and disbelief, shock, anxiety and, for some, even utter devastation,” she says.

Unfortunately, not everybody will understand your feelings of loss. “Some people might say it’s only a dog or a cat — why don’t you just get another pet? They don’t realise how you feel,” says Michaels. “Reach out to others who you know will understand the depth of your feeling for your pet,” she says. “You need to give yourself permission to grieve and to allow time to work through the grieving process.”

“It’s particularly true for older pet owners,” she says. For some elderly people the relationship shared with their pet is one of the most important in their lives.

When a pet dies, some people have their pet buried while others choose cremation. It’s a matter of personal preference how you farewell your pet. Some pet owners also opt to bury their pets in their own backyard but this isn’t a good idea if you have other pets, as they may unearth the pet you have buried. Some local government authorities also don’t permit animals to be buried in backyards.

“If you have lost a pet, paying tribute to your pet can help you through the grieving process. It can help to get children involved,” says Michaels. You can honour your pet through erecting a memorial plaque or creating a living memorial by planting a tree or rose blush in your garden in remembrance of your pet.


Man’s best friend — Greyfriars Bobby

A barren, windswept gravesite in Scotland bears true testament to the special bond shared between a scruffy dog and his owner. In 1870, John Gray worked as a night watchman, trudging along the cold pebbled streets at night accompanied by his faithful hound, a Sky Terrier called Bobby. The bitterly cold winters eventually took their toll. John contracted tuberculosis and died in 1872 and was buried in Greyfriars Kirkyard. His faithful hound Bobby never forgot his master. He lay by his gravesite that night, keeping watch over his beloved master. Bobby returned the next day to the gravesite and stayed every day, only leaving once each day for a meal then returning to his lonely vigil. Bobby carried out his ritual for the next 14 years until his own death at age 16.


Puppy love at Bear Cottage

Scooter is a gorgeous 10-year-old Black Labrador Retriever who lives in Bear Cottage, a beach-house children’s hospice in Manly, Sydney. The centre provides respite and end-of-life care for children suffering from terminal illnesses. Scooter joined Bear Cottage nine years ago after undergoing intensive training at Assistance Dogs Australia in 2002.

Each and every day, you’ll find Scooter happily trotting along the halls. With a wag of his tail and a big, happy grin, he cheers up patients and their families in the care facility. “At Bear Cottage we try to create a warm, homelike environment and Scooter plays a large part in that,” says Kate Henshall, Bear Cottage Community Relations Officer.

Scooter doesn’t have one dedicated master because he is part of the Bear Cottage family. “That in itself would be a challenge for some dogs — his masters change with shift changes in staff at the cottage. But Scooter takes it all in his stride,” says Henshall.

As a pet therapy dog, Scooter has a highly developed sense of intuition. “He just seems to know when a child wants a cuddle and some comfort. He also can sense when a child is feeling really unwell or frightened; he’ll sit right outside that child’s bedroom door,” she says.

“There has been a lot of research done on the benefits of pet therapy for children. Being able to pat Scooter, having that tactile interaction is enormously beneficial,” she says. “It’s very comforting and calming for a child to help groom scooter or have him hop up on the bed and be with them,” she says.

Scooter’s always willing to lend a furry ear to help members of his Bear Cottage family. “A lot of patients will talk to Scooter if they are feeling a bit emotional and that goes for families as well,” says Henshall. “He is very gentle and patient with people.”

When Scooter first arrived at Bear Cottage he developed a close bond with a young boy called Matthew, who was suffering from terminal liver cancer. Matthew’s mother Kim believes Scooter helped Matthew to pass away with a sense of normality and peace, and commented on how much joy he brought to Matthew. “Scooter was always there to offer comfort, especially when Matt was having nightmares, and he was always at the top of the list when Matthew wanted or needed something,” said Kim.

Scooter offered comfort not only to Matthew but to the whole family. “When I was feeling particularly down or teary I’d talk to Scooter knowing he wouldn’t judge me in any way or share my feelings with anyone else. I remember waking up one night to see Scooter getting up on the bed; he just knew that we needed him that night,” said Kim.

Lovable Scooter has provided much-needed comfort and care to hundreds of terminally ill children and their families over the years at Bear Cottage. He is due for retirement and another pet therapy dog is already being trained to take his place.

A dialogue with a pet whisperer

Pet whisperer and animal communicator and healer Sarah Messina from Wild Insights (www.wildinsights.com.au) can speak the language of animals. “I work as a translator, conveying the thoughts, feelings, wants and needs of animals into messages that their human guardians can understand,” she says. Messina describes animal communication as a form of telepathy.

“The messages come in different forms, including words, phrases, images, feelings, sounds and smells. As an animal communicator, my role is to translate these messages and act as a mediator between you and your animal, communicating messages back and forth.”

In helping to give pets a voice, Messina has assisted many pets and their guardians to understand each other and develop an even closer loving bond. In working with animals Messina has had some very interesting and entertaining dialogues with all kinds of critters.

“I’ve communicated with talkative snakes, timid cats, affectionate lizards, furious kangaroos and dogs that love to joke … they are all so incredibly individual. It takes good telepathic communication skills, listening skills and also negotiating skills to work harmoniously with such different beings,” she says.

For pet owners to truly understand their pets, Messina says it’s important to get to know who they really are. “You can work on connecting with your pet by using your intuition,” she says. “When people start exercising their intuition, they open the doorway to animal communication. That’s where I advise people to begin.

“Start by spending just five minutes a day paying attention to your animal — not playing or walking but just sitting with them. Clear your mind, look into their eyes and send them a feeling of love. Then sit back and notice what you get. You might receive impressions as words, feelings, images or sounds. Believe what you receive. These impressions occur more often for those who don’t dismiss them. Record any impressions you receive and thank your animal for sharing,” Messina says.

“When you learn to listen to your intuition, you open up to a wonderful new level of connectedness with your animal friends. With a little practice and some helpful guidance, anyone can learn to hear the language of animals. You can ask your animal any questions you have for them but also give them some space to talk about what’s important for them. It’s so rare that they get a chance to express their thoughts and feelings in words, and they appreciate the opportunity so much.”

Henshall concludes, “I see it over and over again. When animals feel heard and understood, the relationship with their human guardians shifts into something truly amazing.”



Carrol Baker is a freelance journalist based in the lush tropical Sunshine Coast Hinterland. She writes for lifestyle and Health magazines across Australia and loves climbing mountains, trekking and exploring the great outdoors with her young family.

Carrol Baker

Carrol Baker

Carrol Baker is an award-winning freelance journalist who is a passionate advocate of natural health and wellness. She writes for lifestyle and healthy-living magazines across Australia and internationally.

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