Household pets have the ability to save lives.
A new study by the University of South Australia has found the presence of a dog, cat, or even birds can be enough to stop some older people from taking their own life.
Suicide rates among people aged over 60 are the highest of any age group in Australia.
More than one third of participants in the study who reported being actively suicidal or significantly traumatised discussed how their pets gave them a reason to live.
The study found the need to feed, groom and exercise the animal gave them purpose and the constant physical presence of a pet helped mitigate the loneliness and despair they felt.
“Pets are just wonderful companions,” one woman testified.
“Just being there in your dark times, loving you, knowing you and appreciating you is a powerful thing, offering a sense of protection.”
Lead author and UniSA Health Sciences lecturer Dr Janette Young said men in particular identified their pets as playing a key role in their mental health.
“This pattern seems significant given the higher suicide rate among men, which increases with age in western countries,” she said.
Older people are more likely to experience complex health needs, social isolation, loneliness and fear of burdening their families.
“Pets offer a counter to many older people’s sense of uselessness,” Dr Young said.
“Animals need looking after which creates a sense of purpose for older people, and they also promote social connections with other people.”
Dr Young said pet accommodation in aged care should be re-examined in light of these findings.
“Health and care providers need to understand the distress that many older people face when they have to relinquish their pets if they move into aged accommodation, lose their spouse or downsize their home.
“For some people, the loss of a pet may mean the loss of a significant mental health support, one that was perhaps even protecting them from ending their life.”
A Qualitative Analysis of Pets as Suicide Prevention for Older People was published in the journal Anthrozoos, and included 35 interviews with older people aged 60 to 83 years on the impact of pets on their health.