There are lots of conversations we need to have about ageing; just one of those is the important role of pets in the lives of our seniors.

In Australia, 63 per cent of people have a pet, which is the highest rate of pet ownership in the world. So we clearly value what pets can do for us.

How good does it feel when, no matter what kind of day you’ve had you walk in the front door and there’s your dog waiting, always pleased to see you? Or your cat arrives and brushes up against your leg to greet you? It’s a love that’s unconditional.

This human-pet dynamic and the positive outcomes it creates has been coined the ‘pet effect’, and for seniors especially, the benefits can’t be ignored.

A Pets in Aged Care study conducted last year by the Animal Welfare League showed that only 18 percent of residential aged care facilities in Australia allow older people to bring their pets with them when they move in, only 22% allow family members to bring pets to visit and only 9% of community care providers say that they provide pet friendly in home care services.

At the same time, Brigham Young University in Utah in the United States recently published research that concluded that loneliness is as harmful as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, is worse for a person’s health than obesity, and increases the risk of early death by up to 32%.

At the same time, Brigham Young University in Utah in the United States recently published research that concluded that loneliness is as harmful as smoking 15 cigarettes a day.

Other studies have proved that interaction with animals, regardless of whether the animal actually belongs to them, increases quality of life for older people through reduced tension, fatigue and confusion, and increased feelings of enthusiasm, interest and inspiration.

It also doesn’t seem to matter what the pet is – it might be a bird or a fish, a cat or a dog, although with animals like dogs or cats where there’s a real reciprocation of affection, it’s been shown that there are actual changes to brain chemistry in that the brain releases endorphins which are known to improve mood.

Other research has shown a positive effect on behaviour for people with dementia when pets such as dogs and cats are around. There are a number of programs here in Australia that use pets as therapy specifically for people with dementia.

It certainly stands to reason then that if you’re a human and you don’t have a lot of other love or company in your life, the love that a pet can give adds significant value to quality of life in a way that spans the mental, emotional and physiological level.

If loneliness has as much an impact on people’s mental health and physical health as the research suggests, and we know that having a pet can reduce loneliness, then surely pet ownership has to be something that is considered as part of a healthy ageing process.

There are many examples of where I’ve observed the benefits of pets over 25 years working professionally in community and aged care services – whether it’s in an aged care facility, for an older person who’s still living in their own home or in a palliative care environment.

None of these examples is more powerful than that of my parents. My dad died two years ago. He and my mum had a cat and while I thought the cat was quite evil (and still do), she just loved my parents, especially my dad. I think that’s because cats have a way of knowing if you like them or not and almost make it their life’s work to hang out with you because they know how much it annoys you to be in their presence. This was the case for my dad and by the time he died the cat had weazled her way into his affections.

Since he died, that cat has become my mother’s best friend; largely because the cat is a reminder to mum of when my dad was still around. I think there are times when the cat becomes mum’s confidante and on her really bad days the cat is the only reason to get out of bed in the morning.

The cat plays an important role in my mother’s everyday life.

A 2016 study published by BMC Public Health revealed that dog owners exercise more frequently than non-dog owners, and that they felt safer in public when out with their dog. Even the act of just getting outside to take a dog for a walk offers obvious benefits through physical activity, and as this produces endorphins, it then translates into the mental health benefits too.

Another study from 2015 exploring the pet connection and pets as a conduit for social capital found that more than 40 per cent of pet owners in general and 50 per cent of dog owners meet others in their neighbourhood because of their pet, whether it’s in the street, at a dog park or over the back fence. In this way, pets play an important role as a social enabler. It’s an easy and natural conversation starter.

The research shows that more than 40 per cent of pet owners in general and 50 per cent of dog owners meet others in their neighbourhood because of their pet.

It also found that over 80 per cent of dog owners talk to other people when out walking their dogs.

So while we are talking about changing our attitudes to ageing and the need to look after our seniors in a more respectful and appropriate way, then it’s time for us to take into account whether or not they have a pet, and how can we accommodate that pet in their ongoing care.

With such a high level of pet ownership in this country, it’s not fair and almost cruel to force people to leave their pets behind when they enter an aged care facility. It’s forcing them to sustain a significant change in their living circumstances without their companion.

A pet provides an important source of stability to a person when the rest of their life is being turned upside down.

For them, acknowledging that they are frail, acknowledging that they can’t do the things they want to do, acknowledging a loss of independence… and then to be told that they can’t bring probably the only thing that really matters in their lives with them is a cruel blow at a time when they are most vulnerable .

Now, I’m not for one minute trying to downplay the logistics of older people bringing their pets into care or factoring pet care into their care plan if they are still at home. I can hear the naysayers now moaning about workplace health and safety, allergies and the rights of people who don’t like animals.

I hear all of that but still ask that we have the conversation because if we don’t then we are denying our seniors access to a quality of life they have a right to.

Yes, including pets in an aged care environment takes work, particularly if the person can’t look after their pet themselves. However, I ask that we remind ourselves of that feeling we get when we walk in the front door after a horrible day and our pet greets us with unconditional joy and devotion.

Who are we to deny older people that experience just because their living environment has changed or because they can no longer do a lot of things for themselves? If we are serious about changing the way we approach aged care, then this is one conversation worth having.