How pets affect your mental health

JD: Well, we’re heading over to South Australia and the University of South Australia, and Dr Janette Young is on the line right now talking about pets and health. Janette, welcome to you.

JY: Thank you nice to be here.

JD: Do you have a dog?

JY: I’ve got two little dogs at present, yes. And two foster cats living in my bedroom.

JD: Oh, that’s great. Are they helping you?

JY: Yeah, they do, they do. It’s always funny to giggle at particularly one of the dogs he’s a doofus.

JD: Well, I’ve got to say that. Kaye used to bring in her beautiful dog into the office and it was the office dog. And, you know, it just changed the whole atmosphere.

KF: Dynamic.

JD: Oh, totally. And everybody relaxed. And it’s funny how when you go to European countries, you see dogs in the cafeterias and in the restaurants, like in France. We have a different relationship in Australia don’t we? But I’m getting a bit off message.

JY: Well, yes and no.

KF: You’ve recently conducted a study, Janette, and you’ve come up with some findings about pets and older people. So would you share with us what you learned?

JY: So what we did is, we just thought we’d ask older people how their pets impacts on their health. So really open, qualitative research, with the idea being that older people actually identify how their pets are working for them. And so, we weren’t really anticipating having quite a sizeable proportion talking about pets in relation to significant distress.

And most significantly in relation to thoughts, and practices even, of taking their own lives. So that was a bit of a shock, really. But once you realize it, it’s kind of a no brainer, really.

KF: Are you saying, because somebody is responsible for the wellbeing of another creature, that means they have a reason to stay alive?

JY: That’s part of it. Certainly that pragmatic stuff was part of it, but it’s got layers to it as well, we found. So there’s this process where animals certainly give people functional roles, so it’s reason to get up in the morning, you know, feeding the cat. It may also be the reason to get out and about and touching base with other people as well, and that’s probably particularly dogs. But even for all animals, it’s like somehow you’ve got to get them food and so on. So there’s some point of connection with people that seems functional.

JD: They do have a lot of care dogs of course going into elderly sits areas where some of our most senior citizens might not be able to get out. They bring dogs in as comfort.

JY: Yep, and that’s nice. But it’s more than that that was operating in this protective space because these are about relationships, and these are about relationships with individual animals. And so the other bits to the function were things – people talked about a sense of being known by another animal. And so even when it was birds, for example, one day I was talking about how he would go out the back to, he’s got a lot of aviaries and when he would yell out, the birds would respond to him specifically. They knew him. There was a sense of knowing.

The other thing is about presence, so animals can be present when life is really dark, you know, like in the middle of the night when all those dreadful thoughts are coming to people and they can’t sleep, there’s no other people around or they’re not gonna be all that happy if you wake them at 2 a.m. because you are depressed again, etc.

But the dogs there. So while people feel that they are suffering, animals can be present in a way that human beings can’t. So it’s not that, that’s making it sound like human beings should be there instead, but it’s different. It’s a qualitatively different relationship. And in this relationship, so within that, people develop this sense of thankfulness and reciprocity with the animals.

So on one hand the animal gives back to them. And then they give to the animal and then the animal gives back. You know, it’s circular sort of stuff.

KF: It sounds like the circle of love. I think the other part of the relationship might also be the total lack of judgment that you get from your pet. From my dog. Nobody loves me like my dog loves me.

JD: And as they say, I want to be the person my dog thinks I am.

KF: Yes.

JY: That’s true. Yeah. That simple relationship. I mean dogs, well any animal by and large, they don’t hold grudges. I mean, they don’t notice that you’re getting older, that you look really stupid this morning where you’ve got your clothes all in a knot and yeah. Well, what seems, the research more broadly talking about pets and people talks about the nature of these different relationships so they’re qualitatively different relationships.

They’re simpler. They’re kind of kinder and gentler. People can feel redeemed by them at times, like I might be a bad whatever. But my dogs loves me. My budgie loves me. You know – the fish don’t notice that kind of stuff. So yeah, it’s really powerful.

KF: I think there’s a sense of hope in that redemption. You know, we’ve all got a past. We’ve all done bad things, stupid things. But through the love there’s someone who cares deeply about us, it’s unconditional, really isn’t it.

JD: And that that hormone oxi… to what’s it called?

KF: Oxytocin

JD: Oxytocin that one exudes. And I’m sure when you look into your dog’s eyes or your cat’s eyes, hmm fish might be a bit hard… But certainly you get that connection. You get that connection.

KF: So, Jeanette, could we ask you to help us share with our members? So we have people aged 55 to 75 plus. But for the younger members with older parents, would you suggest they actively encourage mum or dad to get a pet?

JY: Not necessarily. I think the things that make a difference are whether or not someone’s lived with pets all their life, or certainly at points in their life. I think you need to take into account that not everybody likes pets. They can be a hassle. You know, you can’t go away, you can’t just sort of drop things and go away overnight or for three or four nights when you might want to, that sort of thing.

So I think you need to have. I think it’s useful to have the discussion, particularly if someone is sort of down and feeling lonely. You should have a discussion. But I think one of the risks actually from this research is that it would be oversimplified and there would be this sense of, oh you know, someone’s depressed we’ll just give them a dog kind of thing – that’ll work.

And that puts both people and animals at risk. So we need to be really careful in this space, that we’re thinking across species and the welfare of both. And that we’re recognizing that it’s not simple, fluffy, frivolous kind of stuff. It’s relationship.

And I often give the example, because when I go and talk to aged care providers, sometimes they’ll say, oh, we’ve got a dog here or we’ve got birds here. And I think that’s a bit like going to Mrs. Brown, who’s just lost Mr. Brown. Don’t mind. Never mind. We’ve got men here. You’ll be fine. We wouldn’t do that. We know that that’s not recognizing the nature of relationships, but we do it around animals.

So we do need to be really careful. I think if you’re talking with, say, aged parents and maybe that parent has had animals in the past. And from what you know, they’ve seen to be beneficial and it’s been something they have enjoyed.

Some of the other work we’re doing is looking at what might sit between pets and no pet. So are they interested in having some animal contact? They’re missing having a dog around? What might be something that sits in between? Petness we’re calling it sort of in the Petness space?

I mean, I know what my mum has been doing, she’s become a family dog sitter.


JY: She’s often got pets there, including my own. She doesn’t have to worry about the vet bills. She doesn’t have to worry about the feeding bills. Basically she gets her puppy fix for however long it is she has them, and then they come home to us. So, yeah, thinking about what sits in between.

And some of the things that you can see in the research more broadly is, for example, the tourism type literature where people you know, the sense of peace that people get from seeing wild animals, for example, or feeding birds in a park that kind of thing.

KF: There’s a lot of different ways in to, what you’re suggesting, is a great relationship solution. And we need to think more broadly on that point.

JD: Dr Janet Young, thank you so much for giving up your time today. We do appreciate it. And that’s a wonderful survey you’ve done and more power to you.

JY: Thank you.

JD: Dr. Janet Young from the University of South Australia. Pets and wellbeing – on mind your own retirement.

Written by YourLifeChoices Writers

YourLifeChoices' team of writers specialise in content that helps Australian over-50s make better decisions about wealth, health, travel and life. It's all in the name. For 22 years, we've been helping older Australians live their best lives.

Leave a Reply

Support services for shut-in seniors

Mind Your Own Retirement Episode 41