by Michael Short – Originally published in THE AGE February 17, 2014
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Dr Liz Walker from the Lort Smith Animal Hospital joins Michael Short in The Zone. 


Dr Liz Walker: ‘Life is better with pets’

[WHO] Dr Liz Walker, chief executive of Lort Smith, Australia’s biggest animal hospital.
[WHAT] There are draconian restrictions on pet ownership, despite evidence that companion animals make people happier and healthier.
[HOW] Relax tenancy rules generally and allow pets in aged-care facilities and shelters for the homeless.

Life is better with pets. There are mental and physical health benefits, as well as the social glue that is evident in parks and on beaches and in the streets. As dog and cat owners in particular will lovingly attest, the bond between humans and animals can be profound.

Today’s guest in The Zone says companion animals are ”the lifeline to happiness for many people”, and that Australia needs to become much more accommodating to people with pets.

Dr Liz Walker is the chief executive of Lort Smith Animal Hospital, Australia’s largest veterinary hospital, which has been operating in inner Melbourne for about three-quarters of a century.


With a $15 million annual budget, its 40 vets and 60 nurses treat 40,000 animals a year, as well as providing a range of services, with a focus on people with limited means.

Pet owners, Walker says, have to endure ”draconian” restrictions on their pets. She is particularly worried about pet owners who are homeless, women and children suffering from domestic violence, people with mental illness, and the increasing number of people moving into residential care as the population ages.

A short video statement by Walker and the full transcript of our interview can be found at She will be online for an hour from midday to respond to questions and comments, which can be submitted from early this morning.

”Companion animals bring unconditional love into people’s lives. They are there to protect you and to love you, and to just be companions. And this is not just animal lovers who believe this; the research always supports it, that it is the lifeline to happiness.”

The benefits of having a pet include:

  • Less physical illness and fewer visits to the doctor;
  • Better fitness – think of all those hours walking the dog;
  • Lower incidence of heart attack and stroke;
  • Providing a sense of purpose, particularly to those feeling flat;
  • Better emotional development for children;
  • An almost effortless way to meet people;
  • Reduced incidence of childhood allergies;
  • Enhanced ability to deal with grief and loss;
  • Being more likely to know your neighbours, and being generally less lonely;
  • Lower rates of depression and less frequent admission to hospital for those with mental illness.

Walker says companion animals pose no significant health risks, that it is easy to accommodate pets in almost all housing situations, and that residential care facilities and emergency shelters for the homeless and for women and children fleeing violence from men should welcome animals.

She says if people cannot have their pets looked after while they are in hospital or before they leave a violent relationship, they will put up with the abuse for much longer.

”They need to sort out their pets first, or they will live hard on the streets before they give up their pets.”

She argues that it is in the interests of all landlords to be open to tenants with pets. ”Those people are missing out on some really good tenants. There are some very simple guidelines that you can put in place regarding owning a pet.

”Animal people are mostly really great people and know how to look after a property. There are just as many dills who don’t look after a property, and don’t know how to look after a property, who don’t have an animal. Pet ownership is not a proxy for destruction.”

Walker says we need tenancy laws that are favourable to pet owners. ”In some public housing, you can have pets, that is true, but it’s really hard. And if you’re in the private sector, it can get very, very messy and very, very difficult.”

She argues that the bonds that landlords demand for tenants with pets are prohibitively large. It is unreasonable, to the point of being cruel, she says, to prevent people who have spent all their lives with pets from having their pets with them in residential care.

Walker says restrictions on where people can own and take pets in Australia are unduly harsh in comparison with those in Europe and the US, where many pets live in apartments.

In Paris, for example, a city where the overwhelming majority of people live in rental apartments and 40 per cent of households have only one person living in them, companion animals are not only permitted, they are celebrated. In stark contrast to here, animals are welcome on public transport and in cafes and restaurants.

It is estimated that there are 33 million pets in Australia, and that 63 per cent of households have a pet. But perhaps reflecting the restrictions and difficulties that Walker says should be eased, the rate of dog ownership is slowly declining, despite the many benefits of ownership.

There are about 3.41 million dogs in Australia and 36 per cent of households have a dog. There are about 2.35 million cats, with 23 per cent of households having one. In the US, 40 per cent of households have a dog and 33 per cent a cat.

Walker trained as a vet and had to deal early on with being retrenched in the recession of the early 1990s. She then did more study before deciding she needed business skills. She spent 15 years in marketing and management roles.

Then her life changed. She saw an advertisement for the chief executive officer job at Lort Smith and decided to abandon her ambition to set up a private business and to continue to work in animal welfare.

”That may seem like a no-brainer, but with a family of four children and with me as the main breadwinner, to actually commit to staying in animal welfare and not-for-profit, where animals don’t vote and there is not a whole lot of free cash around, was a really big decision for me. And I feel fantastic.”

She also feels determined. She believes she can use her veterinary knowledge and business skills to extend Lort Smith’s operations to help remove barriers faced by pet owners.

Lort Smith has long provided emergency services for pets. It gives discounts to people on low incomes; it shelters and finds homes for pets who have been surrendered; it looks after pets for homeless people in crisis accommodation and women escaping violent partners.

The next step will be for Lort Smith to become a broker between those in need and organisations and volunteers who offer services. The economics are compelling: it could cost Lort Smith $3.5 million to build space to shelter an extra 100 animals, or, for far less money, Walker says she can help hundreds more animals by establishing partnerships with pet-minding and rescue services.

This will build on Lort Smith’s emergency welfare assistance program, which pools the resources of some shelters, case workers and private firms in the pet-accommodation industry.

If you are interested in participating, Lort Smith welcomes donations and volunteers. Its 400 volunteers work in three main areas: helping in the shelter and the hospital, particularly with cleaning and dog walking; administration; and as pet therapists with accredited dogs that they take into children’s hospitals and aged-care facilities.

Lort Smith has a chaplain who used to work at Royal Melbourne Hospital. She says bereaved pet owners can cry for their animals as much as – or even more than – people who have lost a human loved one.

That is no surprise to Walker. She has seen people spend $5000 saving a puppy they only had for a few days before it developed a life-threatening illness.

She also tells the story of Roxy, a dog that saved a man called Paul.

”Paul loved her at first sight and they went home from the shelter. Three days later, he [Paul] was not feeling well and fell over and had a seizure.

”This dog that had said nothing for three days, not even one woof, went absolutely crazy and howled the house down until the neighbours came and called the fire brigade to get in and rescue him.”

But perhaps the story that best illustrates the importance of the bond between humans and animals involves two rats, Ham and Pineapple. They belonged to a man who was having personal difficulties, had lost his job and became homeless. He relied on emergency accommodation, which didn’t allow animals.

”We cared for those rats for about three months, and he came to visit them every single day. We had a little chair in the room where these rats were and he just sat there and read a book with the rats on his chest. He eventually came good and got his life together.

”Those rats were his connection with the world; they were what made him feel that life was worth living.”



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