Pets are a powerful positive influence in many people’s lives. No doubt many people reading this article are part of the estimated five million of 7.5 million Australian households with a pet.
Although the evidence body is small, pets have been shown to have positive effects for physical health for some time. A new study found children with a pet dog were less likely to suffer from anxiety than those without. In the early 1990s researchers showed that pet owners had significantly lower levels of risk factors for cardiovascular disease like blood pressure.
Research has also found general health improves after getting a pet and is maintained in the long term, in comparison with a matched control group without pets. However, we are still not encouraging and funding research into how health systems, services and public policy can tap into this resource, especially in mental health. (Post continues after video.)
Getting this topic taken seriously in academia is also difficult. It is seen as frivolous and light-hearted, and not part of legitimate health sciences. Consequently, there is only a piecemeal body of academic literature on the role of pets in mental health.
Across various fields such as criminology and psychology, we can find ad hoc pieces of research linking human mental health to human-animal relationships with positive benefits.
The lack of a coherent body of evidence means it is difficult to show that pets are important in any one population group or field, even after piecing the existing research together. Few health science fields consider there is enough evidence to support publishing new papers, often on the grounds that “evidence is lacking”. (Post continues after gallery.)
We also found animal fields were reluctant to publish articles that suggested animals could be a resource for human wellness. This was seen as devaluing animals.
This conundrum of responses results in a lack of published research, leading to a perception that it is unimportant. This perception shapes the views of funding bodies, so researchers have difficulty in obtaining funding. In turn, there is a dearth of research and a fragmented undeveloped field of understanding.
Are pets good for us?
Scanning the fragmented body of literature that does exist suggests that pets are highly significant in the mental wellbeing of many people. The field of domestic violence is the most advanced in considering the role of pets in health and wellbeing.