Not only do Australians love the great outdoors, sports, and living in one of the world’s sunniest countries, we also love pets! Australia has one of the highest rates of pet ownership in the world and it is estimated that around 70% of Australian households have a pet and that there are more than 24 million pets in Australia.
A nation of animal-lovers
Dogs are the most common Australian pet and with an estimated 4.8 million pet dogs, there are 20 dogs for every 100 people! Cats come second, with 30% of households owning a cat, which equates to there being four million pet cats in Australia. Birds are also a popular choice of pet, and there are about 2.5 million other pets including companion horses, rabbits, guinea pigs, reptiles and other small mammals.
Hey big spender…
If you’re one of the lucky Australian dogs and cats you’re among a community of animal-lovers who spend-up big on their pets. According to a recent AMA survey, Australians spend more that $12 billion on their pets annually, with food being the biggest expenditure. There is a trend towards increasing expenditure on premium products and services, therefore it appears that many dogs and cats out there are living in the lap of luxury. An increasing number of single person households and pets in apartments and townhouses, suggests that these pets are receiving lots of love and attention.
A land of contrasts and inequities
Unfortunately, our generosity doesn’t extend to all Australian animals, and while most enjoy comfortable family lives and the love of their owners there are tens of thousands of homeless animals, as well as several thousand dogs and cats who are euthanised every year because pounds are full and homes can’t be found. There are numerous pet adoption organisations such as the RSPCA and AWL, therefore finding a pet of the right age, breed and temperament is simply a matter of browsing the online registries. If you’re thinking of making an addition your family, why not adopt? Adopted pets can be the most loving and loyal.
Fascinating, diverse and unique
Not only do Australians love domestic animals but we also love our quirky native fauna, and nowhere in the world is there such diversity. More than 80% of our plants, reptiles and mammals are unique to Australia, and our waters are home to 4,000 fish species, most of which occur nowhere else. Our relative isolation from the rest of the world means that our native animals are quite different from species in other places, and whilst some have closely related species in other parts of the southern hemisphere, most are found nowhere else.
We have in excess of 370 species of mammals, almost half of which are marsupials, 820 bird species, and 300 species of lizards. Australia is home to 140 snake species, has more species of venomous snakes than any other continent, and has 21 of the world’s 25 deadliest! And how long did it take all these to evolve? Well, scientists have found evidence of animals dating back more that 550 million years, and Australia and Antarctica broke apart 50 million years ago, therefore it was a very long time. Tragically, in a fraction of that time, many have become extinct.
A barking icon
One of our iconic animals is the dingo, and even though they’re commonly referred to as dogs - and like domestic dogs are descendants of the wolf - they’re actually a species of their own. The scientific community has struggled to establish exactly how they came to Australia, but it’s thought that they were introduced by Asian seafarers around 4,000 years ago after which they became dispersed across the Australian mainland and integrated into Aboriginal culture.
Since European settlement, the number and range of dingos has declined due to loss of habitat and persecution by humans. Dingos have been almost completely eliminated from south-eastern Australia and humans continue to be the greatest threat to their survival. The dingos’ distinct genetic entity is also under threat from their hybridisation with domestic dogs.
Cute, much-loved… and disappearing
Could there be anything more quintessentially Australia than our stout, tailless and fluffy-eared koalas? As Australian as the gum tree itself, the highly recognisable eucalypt-munching symbols of Australian fauna are often incorrectly referred to as bears. These marsupials can get through a kilogram of eucalyptus leaves in a day despite eucalyptus being poisonous to most animals. Not all of the 700-eucalypt species are to their taste however, as they eat less than 50.
Cats are known to be big sleepers, but Koalas give them a run for their money, sleeping up to 20 hours a day! Sadly, suitable places for them to sleep and eat are diminishing and loss of habitat is one of the greatest threats to their survival. Hundreds of thousands of them were shot for their fur early last century, and ongoing tree-clearing for development – both urban and agricultural – is putting at risk the survival of this world-renowned animal. Sadly, its popularity appears to be little defence against its threat of extinction.
Let’s protect what makes us great
Biodiversity is part of what makes Australia great, yet we have an unenviable record of animal extinctions, and there are still many species that are endangered or on the brink of extinction. Since European settlement many treasured native species have been wiped out, and one of the most notable is the Thylacine, or Tasmania Tiger.
The reasons for our terrible record are varied but human intervention is mainly responsible, whether it’s because we’ve destroyed animals’ habitats, introduced diseases and predators such as feral animals, or we’ve hunted species to extinction.
The responsibility for protecting our Australian treasures, whether they’re native Australian species or domestic animals, rests with all of us and we need to reverse the trends on endangerment of species and domestic animal homelessness. This Australia Day, as we fire up the barbecue and celebrate being Australian, let’s spare a thought for the helpless animals in Australia who rely on our protection.