The mental wellbeing of pets - Paws For Thought

Posted by Gudrun on 21/07/2017
The mental wellbeing of pets

It is estimated that over half of the U.K households own a pet and there are many publications highlighting the positive link that pet ownership can have on human physical and mental health.

There is also no doubt that ongoing advancement in veterinary care can help to keep pets in good health.  However, we must also keep asking “what about the mental wellbeing of pets?”

The Animal Welfare Act 2006 placed a legal duty of care on animal owners and keepers to provide for the welfare needs of their animals and the physical aspects of this are often the easier bit to monitor and improve/advise upon compared with the mental wellbeing.  Some of this is due to a historic lack of evidence around the non-physical aspects of welfare.

However, there is now much more animal welfare science that looks at both physical and mental health and welfare.  For instance, we now know far more about the physical and mental wellbeing needs of rabbits as pets than we used to and application of this knowledge can have a very positive effect.  For instance, the PDSA Paw report 2016 found that Rabbits spend on average 12 hours per day in their hutch and 50% still live alone.  We know that rabbits are social creatures and being kept alone is likely to have a deleterious effect on their mental health, in the wild they will run, jump, play and dig all of which is limited if confined to a hutch for long periods of time.  

Pets are social creatures

The same report also highlights that over 2 million dogs are being left alone for 5 hours or more on a weekday and 16% of dogs are walked less than once daily.  This is of concern both for the physical health of the dog (with one of the biggest welfare concerns being obesity) but also their mental wellbeing.  Dogs are sociable creatures and want the interaction with their owners.  Too often we see the physical manifestation of separation anxiety in our practices which are distressing for pet and owner.  The report also highlighted that 1.1million dogs receive no training.  Dogs are intelligent animals and thrive on learning and positive reward based training which can also provide mental stimulus and contribute to a positive mental wellbeing for dogs.   For cats the report shows that 2.3 million cats are living with another cat they don’t get on with.  Cats are naturally solitary or live in family groups and co-habiting with a cat they don’t get on with can be a source of stress which may manifest in a physical medical condition.

It’s not just physical wellbeing

In a busy practice day we often focus on the physical reasons that pets present and do not ask the questions around husbandry that could be having a deleterious effect on mental wellbeing.  Often this may just be down to owners not realising how to improve their pet’s mental wellbeing and spending time with an owner and educating them can make a real difference as well as cementing the veterinary team as the ideal place to go for all pet care education and treatment.

Offering advice on all aspects of pet care and not just physical health aspects will mean a better quality of life for many pets and increased enjoyments of pet ownership.


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