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The ‘Pet Effect’: The benefits of the human-animal connection

Updated: Jul 22, 2019

Author: Dr Kersti Seksel for Delta Society Australia

Excerpts featured in MediBank’s Live Better magazine – December 2017

Dogs have been part of our lives as pets for at least 12,000 years. Over that time their role has encompassed everything from protection and security, to garbage disposal, a heating system, and of course, providing companionship. And while the bond between humans and dogs has always been there, it is now even more widely accepted. Australians have one of the highest rates of pet ownership in the world, with around 62% of us owning a pet of some description.[1] Dogs are one of the most popular type of pets (with 24 million of them in Australia!), and have moved from being primarily kept in the backyard to now living and sleeping inside the house. It’s not unusual these days for a dog to not only sleep inside but to sleep in the owner’s bedroom, even sharing their bed.

Dogs are, without a doubt, seen as important members of the family for many people. And while people generally keep pets for companionship and protection, they also have the added bonus of improving our overall quality of life. The ‘pet effect’, as it’s been dubbed, is the positive impact that pet ownership can have on our physical, social and even psychological health[2], improving everything from our immune system to the way we respond to stress. Of course, having a pet will only be of benefit to people who actually like them! People who dislike dogs, or who are allergic or phobic, won’t experience these positive benefits. Pet ownership is not for everyone.

The benefits of the human-animal connection can be divided into three different areas:

Physical health

Owning a pet has been shown to help reduce stress, lower blood pressure, and decrease cholesterol, particularly benefiting people with cardiovascular disease. .[3] It is now well known that simply patting your dog can significantly improve your heart health! Pet ownership can also reduce anxiety, and lead to an overall improvement in human mental health[4]

Another major physical benefit of pet ownership, especially dogs, is increased physical activity, which has a positive impact on a person’s overall health. Research shows that dog owners have better physical fitness levels than those without dogs, and a reduced risk of obesity, as well as all of the associated health concerns that go along with it.[5]

Overall, compared with non-pet owners, pet owners typically visit the doctor less often and use less medication, and recover more quickly from illness or surgery.[6]

Psychological health

The importance of service animals for people with sensory or physical disabilities is very well known, however there is also a growing body of evidence showing that animals can be of great benefit to people experiencing mental health issues such as anxiety or social phobias.

Pet owners are less likely to experience loneliness and depression, and elderly people who own pets are less likely to become overly distressed by major life events.

Young children who grow up with pets also benefit greatly, developing increased self-confidence, trust and empathy for others.

Social health

Pets are the ultimate social enabler, and can be a great avenue for meeting new people and forming new friendships. They reduce the risk of loneliness, and they can also give their owners a sense of purpose and responsibility.

Owning a pet can also open up a variety of opportunities for social interaction, like animal clubs and societies, training groups or even walking clubs.

Therapy dogs bring the joys of pet ownership to people in hospital and aged-care facilities, providing companionship, connection, and all the health benefits outlined above to people who are at their most vulnerable. People recovering from illness or surgery, or elderly people - particularly those with dementia - can all benefit from the sense of connection and belonging that a visit from a therapy dog can bring.

Delta Society Australia (Delta) is a national not-for-profit organisation with one core belief: that the human-animal bond remarkably improves our quality of life.  Established in 1997, Delta has developed an enviable reputation in the pet therapy sector and trusted relationships with more than 850 health and service facilities across the country.

About the Author

Dr Kersti Seksel is a registered Veterinary Specialist in Behavioural Medicine, and a Board Member of the Delta Society.

For more information and advice about caring for your four-legged friends, follow the Delta Society on Facebook @DeltaSocietyAus, on Twitter @DeltaSocietyAus

[1] Animal Medicines Australia (2016), Pet ownership in Australia, pg 9, accessed 22 Sept 2017.

[2] Smith B, (2012), The ‘pet effect’, Australian Family Physician, June, 41(6);439-442.

[3] RSPCA, What are the health benefits of pet ownership?, accessed 22 Sept 2017.

[4] Animal Medicines Australia (2016), Op Cit, pg 54.

[5] RSPCA Op Cit.

[6] Delta Society website, Why Pet Therapy?, accessed 22 Sept 2017.

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