Two-thirds of Australians have pets, but are they happier?

Font Size:


Australians like their pets, and for most of us by far, the dog remains our best friend.

For the first time, the Household, Income and Labour Dynamics in Australia (HILDA) survey that covers 17,000 Australians annually, has asked participants about pets.

It shows that close to two-thirds of us have at least one pet.

Patterns of pet ownership can help researchers explore which individuals are more likely to own a pet and how pet ownership is associated with individual wellbeing, as measured by life satisfaction, mental health, and general health.

“The results show that pet ownership in Australia is quite high, with almost 62 per cent of people owning at least one pet.”

That’s according to HILDA researcher Dr Ferdi Botha, from the University of Melbourne, who co-authored the chapter with Professor Roger Wilkins.

Blurring the weekend
While this figure is similar to pet ownership in the United States (65 per cent), it is much higher than in the United Kingdom (41 per cent) but lower than reported rates in Argentina, Brazil and Mexico.

Among pet-owning individuals, dogs are by far the most popular. Almost 72 per cent of pet-owning people – which is 48 per cent of all Australians – have a dog.

Cats are the next most popular pet, with approximately 37 per cent of pet-owning people having a cat.

The next most popular pets are fish at 18 per cent, followed by birds at 16 per cent. Some 3.6 per cent pet owners have a horse, and 17 per cent have some other type of pet.

Almost 72 per cent of Australian pet owners have at least one dog and 37 per cent have a least one cat. Picture: Getty Images

It should be noted that these categories are not mutually exclusive, says Dr Botha, since a person may own more than one type of pet.

“But we do know that approximately 59 per cent of pet owners have only one type of pet, while 24 per cent have two types of pets and 17 per cent have three or more pet types,” he says.

The researchers also looked at how personal characteristics differ between pet owners and those who don’t own pets.

Are you OK Australia?
They found that pet ownership was more prevalent among people aged under 65.

People aged under 25 or aged between 45 to 54 are particularly likely to be pet owners.

People aged 15 to 24 account for 9.8 per cent of people who don’t own pets, but 14.9 per cent of people who do. Similarly, people aged 45 to 54 account for 9.6 per cent of people who don’t own pets, but 15.2 per cent of pet owners.

In contrast, people aged 65 and over account for 22.5 per cent of non-pet owners but only 11.1 per cent of pet owners. The older age groups have a relatively high proportion of cat owners compared to dog owners.

“These results probably have a lot to do with life stage,” Dr Botha says. “Older people are possibly less likely to want to maintain an active dog as a pet.”

Among Australians with pets, dogs are the most popular, followed by cats, fish, birds, horses and 17 per cent have some other type of pet like reptiles and small mammals. Picture: Supplied

The survey also revealed some characteristics about pet owners in relation to their income and housing.

People with a dog (and no cat) have a mean equivalised income (household income adjusted for the household size and needs) of just under $60,000, whereas mean income is roughly $55,600 for those with a cat (and no dog).

Separated parents getting better at shared care?
People with pets are slightly more likely to have children. Among people with pets, about 46 per cent have children, whereas 40 per cent of non-pet owning people have children.

As we might expect, 90 per cent of pet owners reside in detached houses, says Dr Botha.

“In contrast, 19 per cent of people with no pets live in flats, and as we might expect, the proportion of cats is larger for people in a flat who have less space than many types of dog would require.”

In terms of relationship status, the majority of pet owners are young couples and couples with dependent children. In households that have a dog, 46 per cent are couples with dependent children.

Pet ownership is also more common in our most populous states of New South Wales, Victoria and Queensland.

Researchers found no differences in life satisfaction or the likelihood of being in poor general health between pet owners and non-pet owners. picture: Getty Images

HILDA survey respondents were also asked to self-report their wellbeing and life satisfaction.

Participants were asked, “All things considered, how satisfied are you with your life overall?”. Responses can range from 0 to 10 – the higher this score, the more satisfied a person is with his or her life as a whole.

“We found no differences in life satisfaction or the likelihood of being in poor general health between pet owners and non-pet owners, Dr Botha says.

Too many eggs in the property wealth basket
“However, somewhat surprisingly, we did find that pet owners are 2.6 percentage points more likely to report being in poor mental health than people who don’t own a pet.”

That prompted the researchers to look closer at only those individuals who own pets to determine whether there are any differences in wellbeing outcomes across people owning different types of pets.

Compared to people with a dog (but no cat), those with cats (but no dog) are about 0.1 points (on the 0-10 scale) less satisfied with life.

Also, people who own a dog and a cat report about 0.9 points lower life satisfaction relative to those with a dog but no cat.

They are also 1.8 and 3.2 percentage points more likely to report poor general health and poor mental health, respectively, relative to people with only a dog (but no cat).

People who own a dog and a cat are between 1.8 and 3.2 percentage points more likely to report poor general health and poor mental health. Picture: Getty Images

Overall these associations suggest that cat owners – particularly those who also own a dog – may have somewhat lower wellbeing than other pet owners.

But Dr Botha emphasises that this doesn’t imply that cats cause lower wellbeing, it is simply an association.

“It may be that people in poorer health and with lower life satisfaction would be worse off if they did not own the cat,” he says.

Pandemic fallout exposes the young and vulnerable
University of Melbourne psychologist Dr Luke Smillie suggests that one possibility is that people who experience lower wellbeing seek out a feline housemate for companionship, but added that this wouldn’t explain why we don’t see the same for dogs, or other kinds of pets.

“Another possibility, owing to the strong overlap between personality and wellbeing, is that this finding reflects the personalities of cat owners,” Dr Smillie says.

Studies show that cat owners typically have lower levels of extraversion, meaning that cat owners tend to be quieter and more reserved compared dog owners.

Dr Smillie explains that extraversion is one of the strongest-known predictors of wellbeing measures like life satisfaction.

So, this finding may be more of a reflection on what the typical cat owner is like as a person, rather than any causes or effects of having a cat.

Studies show that cat owners typically have lower levels of extraversion, meaning that cat owners tend to be quieter and more reserved compared dog owners. Picture: iStock

“Importantly, being a few points lower than average on measures of wellbeing doesn’t mean that one is miserable,” he added.

“A broadly happy and satisfied life allows for a range of emotional intensities, from the most buzzing dog owner to the most chilled cat owner.”

Are you a pet owner? Do the findings about pet ownership and wellbeing resonate with you? Have you found a typical cat owner to be more reserved?

This article was first published on Pursuit. Read the original article.

If you enjoy our content, don’t keep it to yourself. Share our free eNews with your friends and encourage them to sign up.

Join YourLifeChoices today
and get this free eBook!

By joining YourLifeChoices you consent that you have read and agree to our Terms & Conditions and Privacy Policy


Are you getting the Aged Pension you’re entitled to?

Recent changes to means testing could put more money in your pocket.

Do fish oil supplements lower the risk of heart issues?

New study evaluates the value of fish oil supplements in guarding against heart disease.

Putting Donna Hay Christmas recipes to the test

Three home cooks take on festive baking recipes from Donna's Christmas cookbook.

Written by Pursuit


Total Comments: 13
  1. 0

    “…pet ownership was more prevalent among people aged under 65.”

    Show me an aged care centre that welcomes pets.

    • 0

      WOW insane amount of money and no wonder people are slowly killing poor pets not one of my pets have eaten dog food the youngest to die was 20 years old our years 140 years dogs years never got sick every Christmas I BUY A VERY THICK ROPE BALL $5 its his 24 hrs a day and used to throw it across the back yard non stop every day no need for walks the back door is open from 7 am till 12 pm so he can come and go as he pleases he sleeps at the door of passage guarding us threw the night he gets the bones from meat as i buy bulk meat any sections like vain areas silver shine are cooked for dog he eats most veg rice but not tomato so what not eaten on our plates he loves toast and all bran for breakfast with milk and paper thin cheese never sick he has fresh water its filled when empty he takes us to it he has 1 small chocolate egg from a 20 pack on Easter Sunday he has a mini cake 29th Nov for his birthday he gets ice cream 5 times a year i bake him biscuits no sugar peanut butter, carrot, bacon and cheese,pizza flavor with bits left over slice thin strips etc i do not buy dog food the smell is horrid

  2. 0

    I wonder if CATS/DOGS bring decease unknowingly into the house, as most free-roam outside, for that reason I would NEVER own one. [As it is an unknown factor]. Also while millions of people die because they can’t get proper food to eat, our Supermarket shelves are stocked with PET FOOD.

    • 0

      Human beings would not want to eat what goes into pet food .
      Nothing that comes off an animal or chicken goes to waste. The best stuff goes to food for humans and the rest gets ground up and goes into pet food.

    • 0

      only the people whom buy cat food to eat them for self they don’t listen and die in time

  3. 1

    Yes Winston, and also many body corps don’t allow pets. So older people downsizing from a freestanding home often have to give up their pets. Yet it has been found in other studies that pets are good for the mental health of the elderly.
    We’re not a particularly pet friendly country. In the UK and Europe pets are welcome on public transport and in cafes. In Singapore one can take a pet on public transport so long as they are carried in a bag or case or similar. Singapore is very safety and cleanliness minded and this rule prevents a lot of problems one can foresee with pets on public transport. Would love to see improvements in this area in Australia.

    • 1

      Agree, we lived for several years in France and our dog went everywhere with us. Pubs restaurants, buses, shops etc. Same in UK. Yet here they spout OHS BS at you…

  4. 0

    Dogs are great. the less said about people that let cats outside the house the better.Cats kill a lot of our native wild life and in some areas they caused small birds to be wiped out so i have no respect for these people as they are either stupid or just don’t care.

    • 0

      Well spoken Floss,

      The sooner they tax people with cats for the amount that it takes to rid our country of them the better.
      Uncaring, selfish, unthinking. Of course they are cuddly and soft and warm fluffy little cute things that wouldn’t hurt a bird and it is always in the house etc etc don’t listen to a word they say.

      Dogs are not that much better, if they go wild, and there are plenty of those. They use a lot of protein food, but as we all know but can’t speak about, much of their food comes from animals we don’t want any more, like horses.
      A large dog eats more than a person, so that shows how much we care about others in the world.

      And yes I know that some need a dog or even a cat, for psychological support. OK, having a pet should be only on doctor’s prescription. Shall we move on.

  5. 1

    I hope, Milly, that you mean DISEASE and not DECEASE! Dogs and cats are not usually killers and it is well-proven that their presence helps people’s psychological welfare.
    Age care centres are gradually turning towards pet ownership because of that psychological benefit. Even visiting therapy dogs are now entertained.

  6. 1

    I have one dog, two cats and one bird in my house. They are all part of our family and are definitely well-loved. I would be lost without them as they (the cats & dog) give unconditional love and loyalty. I am 71 years old and hope to have pets for many more years to come.

  7. 1

    I’ve had pets all my life – cats, dogs, fish, horses, guinea pigs – the list goes on. I think they are very beneficial for a person’s mental and physical wellbeing but I agree that cats, in particular, should be kept inside which mine always were. I don’t have any pets now because I’m 83 and would worry what would happen to a pet if it outlived me which would be very unfair to the animal. My family are not nearby and my friends are in much the same age group as I am so are of the same mindset about having a pet at this time of life. I must say I really miss not having a cat or dog and have often been tempted to adopt one but commonsense puts that thought away. I agree with Winston – aged care centres would benefit from having a pet – it’s something for residents to see, talk and think about apart from the daily routine.

  8. 1

    I live alone and a few years ago adopted a cat from the RSPCA. She is such good company I would be sad without her.



continue reading


Do life insurance payouts affect the Age Pension?

Geoff's death policy pays out to his children, not his wife. How does this affect the pension? Q. GeoffMy wife...


Grip strength linked to mental disorders

Mental disorders such as anxiety and depression can increase physical health risks and are a leading cause of disability. Globally,...


Tobacco and childcare drive cost of living increase

The Consumer Price Index (CPI) rose 0.9 per cent in the December quarter. According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics...

Age Pension

Retirement system ‘uncertain for almost all retirees’

Australia, a nation of almost four million retirees, has one of the world's best retirement systems. The 2020 Mercer CFA...


The big question: How much do I need to retire?

Life expectancies continue to rise, and with that comes a host of challenges. For governments, there's the increasing cost to...


Understanding the true cost of retirement

The Australian government spends billions on boosting retirement incomes. The two biggest costs, the Age Pension and superannuation tax concessions,...

Age Pension

Adequacy of retiree nest eggs

YourLifeChoices conducts several surveys each year to gauge the financial, physical and mental health of our 260,000 members. The aim...

Age Pension

Age Pension payments in 2021 – what you need to know

World heavyweight boxing champion, Olympian, ordained minister and successful entrepreneur George Foreman returned to the ring at the age of...