Getting paws out for peace and learning about pet pessimism

 By Lauren Sleiman

A new mental health ‘pet program’ which practices the use of animal contact to improve the quality of mental wellbeing also aims to shed light on animals who similarly suffer from mental health issues.

In partnership with the RSPCA,  ‘headspace’ Australia’s National Youth Mental Health Foundation will pilot a Pet Program, in light of research that suggests spending time with animals can positively impact mental, physical and overall wellbeing, according to psychologist Daniel Angus.

 Pet program pic

headspace Psychologists Daniel Angus (left) and Maja (right) with RSPCA Community Development Manager Matt French (middle) and the beloved headspace mascots.

Humans however aren’t the only ones who will benefit from the program, as it aims to educate and inform participants about animal behaviour and how these behaviours act as a signal for underlying mental health issues.


headspace Penrith will run the trial as an interactive 10 week program, with the promise of a site visit to the RSPCA where group members can meet and interact with animals and will also be given the opportunity to adopt a pet.


Daniel, Manager of headspace Penrith services, said that “Owning a pet can give people a sense of purpose, as they offer companionship, love and friendship as well as add structure to your day, sometimes exercise and may even facilitate social contacts with other people, especially pet owners.”


In addition to being trained as police, rescue, military and eye-seeing dogs, animals can be trained to detect seizures and are also used in many forms of therapy, including speech, occupational and physical rehabilitation. But while they are often on the providing end of therapy, animals have the capacity to suffer from mental health issues just as humans do.


Matt French, Community Development Manager for the RSPCA NSW, said that many of the animals that come through the shelter experience social and separation anxiety.


“A lot of the animals suffer from stress and depression, because the stress of being separated from their owner, who is the world to them, is just mentally too much to cope with. ”


Ongoing research continues to confirm that the psychological disorders animals suffer from, mimic many similarities to human mental disorders. Some of these include anorexia, in which case animals will starve themselves in response to social and environmental stressors, obsessive-compulsive disorders, post-traumatic stress disorder and phobias.


Sydney based Veterinarian Dr. Dan said that almost every dog he treats has a behavioural component associated with their issue, which is more often than not a case of ‘canine anxiety’- one of the leading complaints of pet owners.  


“They might be barking or trembling, their unsettled, panting, salivating, hyperactive and they sometimes will inappropriately urinate. These types of seeking behaviours are usually a result of feeling anxious or scared and they will often come to their owners for help.” Dr. Dan said.


“They want to be close and intimate with their owners, they want reassurance and attention and want to feel safe.”


Of all the animals received nationally by the RSPCA, behavioural issues remain the leading cause in Euthanasia for dogs and cats, which suggests an alarming need for pet owners to make sure these issues do not go uncheGecked.


“Their brains are just as complex as ours are…Most of the time when animals are acting out that’s their way of communicating that there is something their not happy about or that something is stressing them out” Matt said.  


“The program will help people to recognise when these animals are stressed or are going through these experiences”.


The program will commence on Friday 11th September, where the first topic of ‘animal behaviour’ will be discussed in detail.

“Us humans can help animals and pets through these issues, and best of all we can all benefit from the interaction and compassion we can give to one another”.