Pawsome Victoria: the rise of pet-friendly cities

People with dogs on a picnic rug

Sofia Levin

Posted July 18, 2018

Furry friends have always been part of the family. Now there are moves to modify our cities for them.

I’m not embarrassed to admit that I’m one of the nine per cent of Aussies who spent more than $1000 buying a dog, according to the Animal Medicines Australia Pet Ownership in Australia 2016 report. What the report won’t tell you is that my toy poodle, Jinkee, also sleeps on my bed, has her own wardrobe, seatbelt, multiple carriers and more than 80,000 followers on Instagram (see @LifeOfJinkee).

The ultimate would be a city in which landlords allow four-legged friends without hesitation.

And yet in this age of fur babies, where pets are as much a part of the family as children, the report says increasing urbanisation and strata laws threaten pet ownership in Australia. 

But I’d argue that Victoria is pet-friendlier than ever. A staggering 40 per cent of Victorians own dogs, and 35 per cent have cats. Those numbers alone make us a pet-friendly state, but the ultimate would be a city in which landlords allow four-legged friends without hesitation, restaurants let dogs dine indoors and pets can catch public transport without a muzzle.

In the US, dogs in approved carriers fly in the cabin to other states, while a dog bakery in Slovenia that opened five years ago is now franchised across Europe. It might sound far-fetched, but Melbourne isn’t far behind. 

Dog in a jacket having brunch at a cafe

Writer Sofia Levin's toy poodle Jinkee

In November last year, the Victorian Government launched the Better for Pets campaign, and legislative reforms are underway to prevent landlords from refusing potential tenants based on pet ownership. Although this change is upon us, it could have come sooner – animals have long been linked to better mental health in humans. 

“Having a pet promotes so much positivity,” says Jodi Batchelor, community and development project officer for Lort Smith. “That experience of loving a pet, being responsible and even going through loss. So many positive things come from companionship.”

High-density living, which is on the rise in the city and suburbs, doesn’t have to mean forgoing a pet. The key lies in keeping the animal’s welfare in mind. 

“If you’re looking at dogs, it depends a lot on breed and how much exercise it requires. So a great dane and greyhound are completely fine in a small apartment if they go for a few walks a day. But working dog breeds would not work in a small apartment because they’re so clever and need something to do and if they don’t have that, behavioural problems might develop,” Jodi says. 

Aussies still spend $520 million a year on pet boarding and minding services.

When it comes to cats, it’s a matter of feeding their curiosity and keeping them active. Indoor obstacle courses that allow them to explore, and bringing in sticks, leaves and dirt from outside to sniff, can help compensate for small living spaces. Hiding food for them to find is also enriching – outdoors, cats eat up to 24 times a day while foraging, not once or twice from a bowl.

Developers are starting to catch on to the benefits of living with pets. Gardenhill Apartments in Doncaster pioneered high-density, pet-friendly living when it announced its complex would have a residential dog park in 2015. Since then, others have installed everything from doggy bins to dog washes, empowering people so they don’t have to choose between their fur babies and home.

Dogs in a playpen at Doghouse Australia

Doghouse Australia

Travelling with pooches is another consideration, with a whopping 19 per cent of Australian dog owners taking their canines with them on holiday. Eighty-five per cent of people who leave pets behind prefer to do so with friends and family, but Aussies still spend $520 million a year on pet boarding and minding services.

Bonding with an animal releases serotonin and oxytocin, neurotransmitters that create feelings of happiness and comfort.

Earlier this year, TrustedHousesitters celebrated half a million house sits in Australia. For the cost of a yearly membership, the service connects people searching for accommodation with home owners who need a reliable pet sitter, providing the former with a free place to stay and the latter with free minding. It’s available worldwide, and it’s taken Brittnay Sharman and Jayden McKinlay to London, Dublin, New Zealand and back to their home in Melbourne.

When I chat with them they’re looking after a shih tzu cross and boston terrier in Yarraville. “We can really get to know an area and experience a lot more from a local’s perspective,” says Brittnay. “I grew up in north Melbourne but we’ve been in four different houses and it’s a good way to learn about a new place without rental and bills.” The couple’s goal is to start a digital company so they can work remotely while travelling to a new destination every month or so.

Both minders and owners can take dogs to countless outdoor restaurants and wineries in Victoria, but few venues let animals inside due to council restrictions. Grub Food Van in Fitzroy and The Tipsy Cow Malt & Vine Co in Port Melbourne are exceptions. Doghouse Australia in Collingwood serves ice-cream, dogachinos and muffins made from kangaroo and sweet potato – but only to pups outside. 

Bringing pets on public transport and to public spaces requires more consideration, taking into account people who might be allergic or frightened, along with resources required to make sure pet owners are controlling their animals. This hurdle has led to regular dog-friendly events, from winery tours and cinema screenings to music festivals and pop-up markets. Even walks in the park aren’t enough for some, with dog pools such as Aquapaws in Somerville and Soggy Doggy Dog Swim Days in Abbotsford making an appearance.

Dog on a chair with a whiskey bottle

The Tipsy Cow Malt & Vine Co.

But it’s not just animals that benefit from all of this – living in a pet-friendly city is beneficial for human residents too. Studies have shown that bonding with an animal releases serotonin and oxytocin, neurotransmitters that create feelings of happiness and comfort. Lort Smith was founded on this principle when it launched during The Great Depression to help those struggling financially to care for and keep their animals. 

It’s the dog that wakes them up and brings them back to life.

“Lort Smith has always been about the human-animal bond and keeping people and their pets together,” says Megan Nutbean, Lort Smith community outreach coordinator. Megan oversees Lort Smith’s pet therapy program, in which volunteers take their pooches into hospitals, aged care homes and other facilities where people can benefit from the joy of a dog. 

“We so often hear from aged care facilities that there’s been a resident who’s been down or hasn’t communicated for weeks or longer, and a dog comes in and all of a sudden they’re smiling, or they’ll speak for the first time in years. It’s the dog that wakes them up and brings them back to life,” Megan says. 

Six-foot-something blokes squeal with excitement when Jinkee passes, and cars pull over for cuddles.

On a personal note, simply walking a sub-three-kilogram toy poodle down the street is something wonderful. I’ve made friends, become part of my local community, been told we’ve made people’s day more times than I can count and seen all ages smile the most genuine smiles. Six-foot-something blokes squeal with excitement when Jinkee passes, and cars pull over for cuddles.

It’s why I decided to volunteer for Lort Smith’s pet therapy program, which will see Jinkee provide some love to those who need it most. It just goes to show what a big difference a little dog can make.

Band playing at Dogapaluza


Five human things to do with your dog

See a film

You might not be able to take your dog into the cinema, but they’re welcome at the Lunar Drive-In nin Dandenong (on a leash) and Dromana 3 Drive-In (inside the car). Some outdoor summer cinemas, such as Moonlight and QV, also allow dogs on leads and usually have a special night for four-legged friends. 

Sip your way through a wine tour

Jump aboard Bella the dog-friendly bus and explore Victoria’s wine regions, dog by your side, as you work your way through wine tastings. Dogs get a window seat, as well as a massage while you enjoy lunch, plus you’ll take home personalised treats and a doggy bag.

Food truck feast

Track down the Canine Wellness Kitchen, which often makes an appearance at food truck parks, and treat your pup to bone broth and dog-friendly beer.

Rock out at a music festival

Tickets are on sale this month for Dogapalooza (pictured), Australia’s first and only dog-friendly community music festival. Held at Burnley Park in Richmond on Sunday 11 November, expect music, food for all species and stalls to spoil your pup.

Splurge on a getaway

Snuggle up next to your dog at the Royal Mail’s historic Mount Sturgeon Cottages in Dunkeld. It's pet-friendly, there’s a kitchenette and no television, which makes cuddling by the fire all the more special.