top of page

The pleasure and pitfalls of pet ownership

Loving a pet can bring enormous joy and significant health benefits to people’s lives, but it can bring challenges too, both financial and emotional. Kate Holland explores how pet ownership has the power to influence so much of our behaviour – for better and for worse.

There’s a dog near the front door, wagging its tail with such force that its body sways like a busy suspension bridge. It heard a car pull up in the driveway and is primed to greet its owner with exuberant and slobbery affection. It does this every time they come home.

At a house down the road there’s a cat curled upon its favourite lap and just a block away a fish follows a friendly finger around the bowl. While the animal types may differ, the companionship each offer is special and sought after. According to Animal Medicines Australia (AMA), 69% of Australians currently own a pet.

In many ways, the more pet owners the better. Interacting with animals can have such a positive impact on our overall health. Dog walking leads to exercise, for example. Companionship decreases loneliness and conversely increases mental health. Plus, animals are great caregivers who can support us when we are unwell or feeling down, and they help us feel safe.

Pets can have a positive impact on our overall health (Photos courtesy: Alicia Kennedy, Cherished Pets)

Research cited by the RSPCA highlights the psychological benefits of pet ownership such as increased empathy, elevated self-esteem, decreased depression, enhanced coping skills, and social connectedness. They say the presence of a companion animal has been associated with better learning outcomes in young people and improved quality of life in older people.

The RSPCA also notes the physical benefits pets can bring, like increased cardiovascular health. They say that growing up with companion animals has been linked with a lower incidence of allergies in later life and that large-scale national surveys have found that people in households with a companion animal (of at least five years) recorded significantly fewer doctor’s visit than those who had never had one.

The Power Of the Human-Animal Bond

Veterinarian Dr Alicia Kennedy first detected the power of the human-animal bond when she saw how important her Nanna’s overweight and ‘nasty’ little fox terrier became to her after her grandad died. In her working life, she’s seen this dynamic play out time and time again. “As people go through life's phases, different things can happen, and vulnerability can come in,” she said. “And very often that companion pet becomes more important to someone’s health and wellbeing.”

She’s made another very important observation too. Just because you love your pet, doesn’t automatically make you perfectly equipped to care for it. Dr Kennedy said, “some of the worst cases of neglect I’ve seen have not been from a lack of love”. She points out that a change in life situation can compromise someone’s capacity and capability to keep their pet healthy.

These limitations can be financial, physical and/or psychological. For example, there might be clients who can pay but can’t physically drive their animal to the vet. Some might need assistance to take their dog for a walk. Others are truly fearful of seeking help in case they are judged, separated from their pet, or can’t afford to pay. The longer treatment is avoided, of course, the worse the situation becomes.

Dr Alicia Kennedy, founder Cherished Pets (Photo supplied)

That is why, in 2015, Dr Kennedy established Cherished Pets – a unique veterinary social enterprise in Geelong with a mission to support companion pet ownership of vulnerable people. Rather than simply treat animals they have a focus on helping people to keep their pets healthy and together with them.

With the growing link between crisis care and animals (people who won’t seek treatment or leave an unsafe environment if it means abandoning their pet, for example) she’d like this kind of approach to grow. Ultimately, she’d like to see qualified veterinary social workers who have undertaken extra training in the human-animal bond placed across the industry. This will aid with the profound emotional needs at play and help to address the growing pet affordability gap.

The Real Cost of Care

Adelaide journalist and dog lover Caroline Winter knows all about pet affordability. In a fairly morbid coincidence, just weeks before she finished editing her 8-part podcast series Sick As A Dog (which investigates the issues affecting the veterinary industry), her beloved Groodle Harvey was hit by a car. Thankfully, he survived and the vet care he received was exemplary both in the moment (the vet came in on his day off) and more recently when he was operated on. All of it cost money. Caroline is fortunate enough to have the means to cover Harvey’s expenses but is also well aware that not everyone would be.

This became blatantly obvious on the morning she admitted Harvey to hospital. “The girl serving me was so clearly relieved that I had paid the deposit for his surgery and it occurred to me these moments must often become tense,” she said. “As humans we are used to having really good medical care for ourselves and we expect that of our pets as well. In researching my podcast, I have learnt that, unlike us, there’s no Medicare for pets, or PBS. It’s not subsidised. It’s a private industry. So, we probably don’t realise what it actually costs. I know it’s hard to be rational when we are emotional, but it’s important that we’re aware of some facts and mindful of the cost of care, so vets and vet staff aren't abused.”

Harvey the Groodle post surgery

Vets Are People Too

Think back to that tail wagging dog at the front door, the purring cat and the finger-following fish. Current figures from the AMA and Australian Veterinary Association (AVA) indicate they are but some of the 30.4million pets being tended to by around 15,000 vets in Australia. That’s a lot of demand even without abuse for fees. Let’s not forget, the people who help take care of animals took an oath to do so when they graduated. They are doing their job and the majority are doing it very well. And sometimes it’s at a cost far greater than money.

Renowned psychologist Dr Nadine Hamilton is a leading global authority on veterinary wellbeing. She founded Love Your Pet, Love Your Vet, a registered charity in Australia, to raise awareness and build community support to highlight and address the disproportionately high rate of suicide within this profession. She believed we needed a ‘paradigm shift’, which included how we treat our vets, and that things are slowly changing.

It's clear that pets are worth having. And given the benefits (and love) that they bring, it’s no wonder we go to great lengths to avoid separating from them and emotional when things go wrong. But vets are worth having too. They’re crucial, in fact. As a community, let’s strive to look after all the creatures – big and small, human or otherwise.


Dr Alicia Kennedy at Cherished Pets: (

Caroline Winter podcast producer of Sick As A Dog:

Dr Nadine Hamilton: also Love your Pet, Love Your Vet -

Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page