Tags: Community & relationships Flourish Health Real Wellbeing factors

“It gives you a reason to get out of bed in the morning because she’s there and needs to be fed. It gives you a purpose in life.”—Norma Tyson, Australian Unity Home Care Service customer.

Key points

  • Studies show that interacting with pets lowers your levels of stress and can make you feel naturally happier
  • Physical health can also be positively influenced by having a pet
  • Pets also have the ability to unite and connect people from different backgrounds, ages and social circles

Almost a third of Australians would prefer to spend time with their pets than other people, according to recent data from the Australia Talks Survey.

While spending time with your furry pals certainly shouldn’t replace regular social interaction, having a pet in the house can provide great comfort, reduce anxiety and help with feelings of loneliness and even change the chemistry of our brains.

Studies have found that interacting with pets lowers the levels of the stress hormone cortisol and can raise ‘happy’ hormone oxytocin, dopamine and serotonin. Most astoundingly, bonding with pets has been found to have the same effect on our brains (i.e. a release of oxytocin that has a calming effect) as when a mother holds her child.

Elderly man feeding dog at dinner table

Professor Kerryn Phelps—in her book How to Keep Your Brain Young—describes the release of serotonin when patting a pet as a type of natural antidepressant, giving you a sense of calm and promoting happy feelings.

Australian Unity Home Care Service customer Norma Tyson, who lives in Berkeley, New South Wales, knows all too well the social and emotional benefits that caring for a pet can provide. “Last year I had cancer and while I was really sick Muffin was with me always,” Norma says.

Muffin, a two-year-old domestic cat, came to live with Norma when she was six months old.

“When I came to live in these units, after my husband died, I still had our dog and she lived until she was 17,” Norma says. “After she died, I said, ‘that’s it, I’m not having any more pets’, but the minute I saw Muffin she changed my mind. She is my constant companion and my life.”

Living on her own, Norma has found the companionship and comfort of a pet invaluable. “It gives you a reason to get out of bed in the morning because she’s there and needs to be fed. It gives you a purpose in life. The comfort and affection and love – there’s nothing like having an animal. They’re just so beautiful.”

Dog licking elderly person's face

Australian Unity Home Care Service customer, Shirley Bray has an energetic 14-year-old Shih Tzu x Maltese, Bambi, to keep her and her husband Doug busy. “She’s showing no signs of slowing down. I wish I had her energy,” Shirley says.

“She makes everybody welcome and loves to play with everyone who comes to the house. There’s one lady, Anna, who comes to do our cleaning and showers, and Bambi knows when she’s coming long before we do. She’s very friendly—sometimes I think she’s too friendly.”

Research into the physical benefits of owning a pet has proven that regular exercise associated with walking, getting outside and throwing a ball for an animal can increase cardiovascular health in humans and result in fewer visits to the doctor.

Apart from the physical benefits, the emotional and social support pets provide is significant. It’s the ability to unite and connect people from different backgrounds, ages and social circles that is one of the great benefits of owning pets—dog parks can be great spaces to meet and interact with new people. This is especially the case during times of
social isolation such as the COVID-19 pandemic in which pet adoption numbers soared.

The Lost Dogs home in Melbourne recorded its highest pet adoption rate in a decade during the pandemic—with almost 400 cats and 290 dogs adopted in April 2021.

Australian Unity customer Patricia Hannan and her cat Chum sit comfortably together on the bed.

“I know that having pets isn’t for everyone, but for me it’s been a joy,” Australian Unity Home Care Service customer Patricia Hannan, based in Mt Ousley, NSW, says. “Now especially, with so many rules forbidding contact with others, even family, it’s been lovely just to be able to stroke a cat.”

Patricia (pictured above) has had the companionship of two loving cats over the past 16 years—Chum (who was recently euthanised) and his sister Smudge. “I remember my late husband Bill deciding to take both kittens instead of separating them.”

Visitors to Patricia’s home share her affection for the cats, including her former Australian Unity Home Care Worker Sam Johnson, who painted a picture of Pat and Chum sitting together.

“They’ve been a comfort and they’ve been wonderful companions in their own way. I’m grateful for every moment that we’ve had, and I still smile when I think of Bill saying, ‘we’ll take them both’.”

Words: Georgia Lejeune

You can now get pet insurance through Australian Unity to give you peace of mind when it comes to your furry family members.

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