- Australia has one of the highest rates of pet ownership in the world: 61% of households own pets, primarily dogs (40%) and cats (27%).
- Pets offer great companionship and enhance wellbeing and health.
- The positive benefits of pet ownership may be available even to those unable to ‘own’ a pet.
Pets offer great companionship for people of all ages. For older people, they can provide structure to our lives, motivate us to get out for a walk, talk to other pet walkers and owners, they generate love and meaning in life, and generally enhance our wellbeing and health. Pets are a great antidote to loneliness and mental health issues.
However, the expense of pet ownership, combined with age-related illnesses (e.g. arthritis, diabetes for humans and pets), can make owning and caring for pets challenging.
What happens when you are less mobile, enter age care or pass on? And can you afford their treatment when they are sick? And there’s always the heart break when they die leaving us bereft and lonely.
Less demanding alternatives to traditional pets are discussed later in this article.
University of Queensland and Queensland University of Technology researchers have studied pet ownership among older Australians. More than 100 people were surveyed about pet ownership and what they got out of owning a pet/s.
The study found 60% reported had at least one pet, 14% had two pets and 23% had three or more.
The survey found there were many varied reasons for having a pet and the value they brought to their lives.
As 69-year-old Geoffrey explained, having his pet for company is “just like having another member of the family around”.
Pets were especially valued for filling a void in later life or during times of loss and grief, such as children leaving home or a spouse dying. After her partner died unexpectedly, 67-year-old Margaret found great comfort from her dog, who gave her a reason to leave the house.
“Has been with me 24/7 since I lost my partner...sleeps with me and doesn't let me out of her sight...I often wake up and think 'what on earth am I going to do today all on my own' but once I get out walking with my dog and get among people, I feel much better,” Margaret said.
The 40% of participants who did not own pets were not necessarily pet-free by preference, citing cost, challenges of securing pet-friendly rental accommodation and reliable pet-minders as barriers.
Ann, aged 59, reflected on the trauma she felt giving up a much-loved companion because she could not find a pet-friendly rental home.
“I want pets but I rent and the risk of not being able to get appropriate rental accommodation in the future because I have pets, makes it not worth the emotional attachment... I couldn't go through that again.
Feeding native wildlife
People feed wildlife for many reasons. However, feeding native wildlife is generally not recommended in Australia. Some wildlife experts even believe providing supplementary food to wild animals may have harmful side-effects. According to the Brisbane City Council anyone feeding local native wildlife, should ensure the food is appropriate.
Alternatives to feeding include planting or growing native plants for animals to feed on directly. For more information check out these state based resources: Queensland, NSW, Victoria, South Australia, Western Australia, NT, Tasmania.
The researchers suggest we think outside the box about what 'owning a pet' means.
They found older people develop a similar emotional bond with native wildlife as they do with domestic animals, without the labour and commitment of ownership.
Instead of owning a pet, older people could be encouraged to engage and connect with the native wildlife around them.
The researchers talked to people who were really engaged with their wildlife saying, “I don't have a pet, except for the lizard that appears on the veranda every time we have coffee”.
On respondent, Gerry (age withheld) noted there was “no need for pets. I have wild birds that I water and feed sometimes”.
These interactions with wildlife provided a connection with the non-human world that was greatly valued.
“My dog passed away about 6 months ago. It was sad but it has untied us to be able to travel more. We have geese on our dam and although they are wild, we can hand feed them and they always waddle up to us. At the moment it's nice to have 'pets' without the worry of having to look after them,” said 57-year-old Tracy.
The researchers concluded "The local wildlife they regularly interacted with fulfilled similar needs in their life”, and recommended that policymakers, urban planners, designers and practitioners working with older adults must acknowledge the value of animals as an integral aspect of the household and the need to maximise opportunities for engagement with greenspace and native wildlife.