The Labour Party played a blinder last week with the announcement of its 50-point animal welfare plan, with the inclusion of a clause to give tenants the right to own a pet. This penetrates the deep social issues that nag at the collective conscience, including the rise in homelessness and the housing crisis, mental health, and of course animal welfare itself.
But this is no political rant, the announcement just so happened to coincide with a conference I’m involved with as a trustee of the Society of Companion Animal Studies. This is a small charity that promotes the study of the human-companion animal bond and the importance of pets in society. One of our aims is to help housing providers, politicians, private landlords and care home owners understand the benefits gained from allowing tenants to keep pets. It was, however, good of the party to take up some of our messaging and get this topic in front of so many more people than we could ourselves!
Pet ownership is documented to have positive and far-reaching impacts throughout society, with some well-referenced examples being improved physical and mental health, lower blood pressure and reduced anxiety in children and adults. Dog ownership and dog walking is also reported to have a cohesive effect on communities that brings people together and acts as a ‘glue’ to help form safer and happier neighbourhoods.
Pet ownership is a complex topic with of course many variables, but the benefits are well researched and the wider economic impacts are also worthy of note. I think the statistics speak for themselves and, while only statistics, help build up a picture in fiscal terms at least.
- It is estimated that pet ownership in the UK may reduce use of the NHS to the value of £2.45 billion/year through reduced visits to the doctor.
- In 2017 2.28 million people in the UK were diagnosed with an anxiety disorder which cost the economy approximately £8.9 billion. It is projected that by 2026, 2.56 million anxiety-related diagnosis will be made, which will cost the economy approximately £14.2 billion.
- Fewer sick days from work from pet owners, giving rise to savings to employers and businesses.
- In the UK around one in five carers is forced to give up work – over £5 billion is lost from the economy due to lost earnings from individuals giving up work to take on caring duties.
- Classroom dogs help reduce truancy which is related to youth crime and youth unemployment. The daily cost of youth unemployment to the UK due to productivity loss is £10 million and with £20 million a week added on due to benefit payments the monthly cost is £360 million.*
In terms of the emotional benefits, anyone who has witnessed an elderly relative or friend reach to pat the little dog by their side for reassurance, or tickle the cat for a second, will appreciate how big a part that animal plays in their life. Pooch and Tiddles are absolutely considered members of the family, providing companionship, emotional support, a reason to get up in the morning, to socialise with others when out walking the dog, keeping fitter as a result, and not feeling so anxious about life. A pet also engenders a sense of security and can help build confidence in vulnerable members of society, including children.
And anyone who has witnessed such a relative being forced to give up their pet when moving from their own home into a nursing or care home, for example, cannot fail to be moved by the emotional trauma this relinquishment causes. Just heartbreaking. Forcing a person to give up a beloved companion causes massive welfare issues – for both the owner and the pet, which is then relinquished to an animal rehoming centre or, more often than not, put to sleep. The owner suffers terribly from anxiety, stress, becomes very upset, suffers feelings of bereavement, and this can undo all the physical good done through owning the pet previously. The person then needs care and attention from over-stretched resources, such as the NHS, GP or social services.
While home owners are in a position to choose to have a pet should they wish, others in social, privately rented and care home accommodation are often not given the option. It used to be thought that this issue just affected the elderly and the vulnerable, but many younger people are also affected.
A cycle of homelessness develops, where a person in a rented place is told to ‘get rid of that animal’ and many will, as a result of the strong bond with their pet, choose a life on the streets rather than give up their pet. Then, once on the streets they cannot get into safe accommodation again because they have a pet with them. And so the cycle continues. Encouraging all landlords to adopt a positive pet policy would help to break these cycles, reduce welfare issues and save hard cash for services such as the NHS.
This is a complex issue and it is understandable that landlords have reservations about allowing pets, but these can be dealt with, and on balance we feel the benefits outweigh the negatives. Many perceptions about pets and their bad behaviour come down to misconceptions or a lack of understanding of how pets actually behave. Some landlords are realising that tenants with pets actually stay longer and make few complaints, so are embracing a positive pet policy. This is fantastic news and we are using some of these case studies and will put them on our website.
Other parts of the world have embraced the idea that pulling apart pets and owners for what are arbitrary reasons does no good at all and have implemented changes to enable renters to keep pets. Housing tenants in France have had the right to keep pets since the 1970s, now other countries are following suit, including Belgium, India and parts of Australia.
*Statistics taken from The Economic Impact of Companion Animals in the UK, by Sophie Hall, Luke Dolling, Katie Bristow, Ted Fuller and Daniel S Mills (2017). It is an interesting read.