What does pet health look like?
Welcome to the third instalment of our ‘We Are One Health’ pet owner blog series for 2019. In this series, we’ll be looking at many aspects spanning the topic of pet health including sleep, skin conditions and the importance of exercise for pets.
We know our pets are good for us; they help keep us fit, make us happy, and give us unconditional love. National Pet Month, running from 1 April – 6 May this year and celebrating its 30th anniversary, is focusing on the mental health benefits of pet ownership – we look at this here, and how we can help our pets’ mental health too.
One of the reasons pet owners, particularly dog owners, reap the mental health benefits of owning a pet, is due to the increased amount of exercise that we do when we have them. Making sure your pet is getting enough exercise to stay healthy, can also keep us healthy both physically and mentally. On average, dog owners spend around 8 hours a week walking their four-legged friend, whereas non dog owners only clock around 1 hour and 20 minutes of jogging and strolling. The study also found that 70% of participants said that they found going to the gym boring and a chore, whereas 86% of dog owners said that they enjoyed taking their dog out each day. This helps give owners’ lives a purpose and prevents loneliness, as there’s nothing like a dog to kick-start a conversation. With our increasingly single-person households, pets can offer support, where keeping them is practical.
It’s not just dogs that help in this way either. Different pets can help support people who are, for example, housebound, geographically isolated, or have challenges such as mental health problems or learning disabilities which make contact with people hard. The Mental Health Foundation carried out a study with Cats Protection involving over 600 cat, and non-cat-owning respondents, with half of them describing themselves as currently having a mental health problem. The survey found that 87% of people who owned a cat felt it had a positive impact on their wellbeing, while 76% said they could cope with everyday life much better thanks to the company of their feline friends. Half of the cat owners felt that their cat's presence and companionship was most helpful, followed by a third of respondents who described stroking a cat as a calming and helpful activity.
The mental health benefits of pet ownership are no better apparent than at Dogs for Good – a wonderful charity that makes life-changing differences for people with disabilities. They support people with a range of needs including physical disabilities, autism, dementia and learning disabilities enabling them to lead more independent lives through the help of trained dogs.
Dogs for Good Chief Executive, Peter Gorbing says:“In my role, I’m privileged to be able to witness the power of dogs through the life-changing differences our dogs make to our incredible clients and the stories they share with our organisation.”
One of those clients is Lisa who has Dogs for Good assistance dog, Rory. “He’s my big best friend. He’s given me my happiness back and I’m starting to recognise myself again,” says Lisa who has Hypermobility Spectrum Disorder.
So how can we keep on top of our pets’ mental health too?
Just as our pets help our health, whatever type of pet you own, from rabbits to dogs to chinchillas, it’s critical that you look after their mental wellbeing as well as their physical health.
There are many ways in which owners can help ensure their pets’ mental health stays in tip-top condition, depending on which type of animal they own. An important factor for all animals, is to ensure they are living in a safe, secure and comfortable environment. For example, if you own a rabbit, ensuring they are not just confined to a hutch is one of the key ways to ensure they stay happy and healthy; as Rabbit Welfare Association & Fund notes, a hutch is not enough!
Getting enough physical exercise and mental stimulation is another very important factor in maintaining good mental wellness in pets. Dogs need lots of exercise as part of an active lifestyle. Not only does this improve their physical health such as their heart health and healthy weight maintenance, but also keeps them mentally stimulated and active, in turn reducing mental illnesses such as depression and aggressiveness.
Owners can also think about whether their pet has appropriate companionship and attention. For cats, this may not mean another cat. If cats share their space with other cats, particularly if they are not compatible, they can become stressed. We need to make sure they have somewhere they feel safe and to provide separate food, water, toileting and play areas, as well as ‘safe’ places to rest and sleep. Acute stress is quite easy to spot, but longer-term stress can be more subtle. The charity International Cat Care has some good pointers and advice – and if you have any worries, you should talk to your vet.
In contrast, to avoid boredom and loneliness, rabbits and guinea pigs need company and lots of attention. It’s advisable to keep both rabbits and guinea pigs in suitable pairs or social groups of their own kind to encourage them to interact and socialise, but to never keep rabbits with guinea pigs, as they may be bullied and/or injured.
When we talked to Sophie Hardy, owner of pet guinea pig Chutney back in 2017, she demonstrated perfectly how she keeps on top of Chutney’s mental health, noting, ‘I think it is extremely important to provide small animals with environmental enrichment to keep them mentally stimulated. This allows guinea pigs to display natural behaviours. I try to reflect an environment that is similar to that of wild guinea pigs. This includes living in pairs or groups, foraging for food, getting enough exercise outside in a roomy pen where they can explore and simulate a range of natural behaviours’. Read her top tips on how to keep your small pet mentally stimulated here.
A guide to pet’s mental health
If you would like some more information on how to keep on top of your pet’s mental health to ensure they stay happy and healthy, check out our site here. You can also visit your vet or pet store to seek independent, expert advice on how to best monitor your pet’s mental wellness.
With the arrival of World Digestive Health Day on the 29th of May, next month we will be exploring pet digestive health. This blog series will include a range of topics common to pets and their owners, including sleep, joint problems, skin conditions and much more.