Let’s hear it for Fido friendly cities

Posted on December 6, 2011

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‘We know pets improve people’s well being’ -

Dr Bennett speaks about the benefits of pets: (Photo: James Mepham,Jungle Jim Documentary Pictures)

Australia – with its increasing number of single person households and rising mental health costs – could create a better and more harmonious society by redesigning its cities to make them more pet friendly.

La Trobe Associate Professor in Psychology, Pauleen Bennett, recently helped launch the University’s ‘Big FAT Ideas’ video series, saying we need to make it easier for people to own pets – especially the aged, the socially disadvantaged and the lonely.

‘We know five things make life better: positive emotion, engagement, relationships, meaning, achievement – and pets tick every one of those boxes. ‘So we need services that help the elderly look after animals, and retirement villages that are pet friendly.’

Volunteers provide a lot of pet support services, she says,  and they get ‘just as many positive psychological benefits from doing that as do the people they are helping – so it’s a win-win situation all round!

‘We also need more animals in our schools and in our workplaces, but our cities are not well designed for animals.’ However, she says animals need to be the right type, ones that are well adjusted and cared for and that fit into the community.’

‘Anthrozoology’ – a new and growing field

As an ‘anthrozoologist’, Dr Bennett is a leading figure in a new and growing field of studies into human and animal interaction which brings together disciplines including anthropology, ethology, medicine, psychology, veterinary medicine and zoology.

As well as psychology, she has studied computer science, philosophy, sociology, biology and zoology and holds two Bachelor’s degrees, a Master’s degree and a PhD. She is Executive director of the Australian Anthrozoology Research Foundation and President of the International Society for Anthrozoology.

Earlier this year Dr Bennett took up her new post as Director of Regional Operations for the School of Psychological Science at La Trobe, based at the Bendigo campus, having previously worked at Monash University.

For about a decade she has been studying human-animal relationships. Dr Bennett started Australia’s first university course in animal welfare at Monash, and designed and wrote a course about Animals in Society for Ohio State University in the US. This course is now running at the University of New England, and she hopes to introduce it at La Trobe.

High rate of pet ownership

Australia, explains Dr Bennett, has one of the highest rates of pet ownership in the world:  sixty-three per cent of households have pets. ‘We have 33 million pets, about 3.5 million dogs and 2.5million cats.  That compares with 22 million humans and eight million homes’. 

‘Eighty-three per cent of Australians have had a pet at some stage of their lives. Of those who don’t, 53 per cent wish they did.’

While there are various theories about pet ownership acting as a substitute for human relationships, as a psychologist with extensive research experience into humans and their interaction with pets, she is convinced pets add to our lives, even if we are not old, lonely or depressed.

‘Really successful people have pets.  The first thing you do when you become President (of the US) is you rush out and buy yourself a dog because it adds something to your life.’

She says psychologists are pretty good at ‘fixing broken people’. ‘What we need to do now is to make life better for those of us who aren’t mentally ill, but don’t have absolutely perfect lives.’   Hence she’s a great advocate of ‘positive psychology’ in which pets have an important role to play.

At the Bendigo campus, Dr Bennett is supervising PhD research which includes surveying very successful people as to why they dote on their dogs or cats.

‘My grand plan to save the planet is that we need more pets.  Studies show that people become more community minded if they live in a community where pets walk around,’ she concludes. ‘People say they feel safer and happier.’ (ER)

Watch Dr Bennett’s talk here

Other topics in La Trobe’s ‘Big FAT (Focused, Ambitious and Transformative) Ideas’ series are:

Fishy ethics: Human beings are harvesting more fish than ever before, with serious consequences

Cities are still new frontiers: Half the world’s population now live in cities – a dramatic and relatively recent change

Sin taxes – a low blow to the poor : Cigarette taxes are favoured by economists and politicians, generating over $6B in revenue per year.

Education and the war on youth: One of the most powerful social engineering tools available in society is school curriculum.

Western accounting: Is the rise of terrorism related to the institution governing the
development of global accounting standards?

Mobile phones to connect refugee women: Peer support training and free call mobile phones is lowering communication barriers.