“Want To Save On Health Care Costs? Get A Pet!” announced a recent headline in the Sacramento Bee. The idea that dogs and cats can help solve America’s spiraling health care bill is certainly appealing. After all, the United States spends vastly more money per capita on health care than any other developed country yet we come in dead last on measures of medical and psychological well-being. But is this claim justified?
The newspaper article was based on a report by the Human Animal Bond Research Initiative (HABRI). The report (here) concluded that pet ownership reduces health care costs in the United States by at least $11.8 billion dollars a years. HABRI is a pet products industry trade group which encourages pet ownership by promoting the health benefits of companion animals. (Their website states “When people become more aware of these benefits, they are more likely to acquire pets and recommend them to others.”) HABRI funds research on the human-animal bond and maintains an important clearing house for information based on scientific studies of the human animal bond. (This excellent review of research on the use of animal assisted therapy for the treatment of post traumatic stress disorder by Marguerite O'Haire and her colleagues is a good example.)
However, I am not convinced that pet-ownership saves Americans nearly $12 billion dollars a year on health care. Here's why.
First: The Impact of Pets On Human Health Is Unclear.
The HABRI report is based on a highly selective presentation of the research on the impact of pets on human health. The report extensively discusses the studies which found that pet owners have better health than non-pet owners: lower rates of obesity and hypertension, fewer allergies, higher rates of survival from heart attacks, and fewer doctor visits. The problem is that the report omits any mention of the many studies which have reported that that pet owners are either no better off than non-pet owners or that they have more medical problems.
The HABRI report cherry-picked studies which found positive effects of pets on health. Let's see what happens when we cherry-pick from the null and negative studies.
In reality, the hundreds of studies on the impact of pets on human health and happiness have produced a muddle of inconsistent results. Further, as many investigators have pointed out, methodological problems are common in this field. Among these are inadequate sample sizes, lack of control groups, bias toward the publication of positive findings, and cherry picking research results. (Here and here.)
Second: Confusing Correlation with Causality
A big problem is that none of the evidence linking pet ownership to fewer doctor visits and lower health costs is based on clinical trials. Rather, all the studies are correlational. This means that we have no direct evidence that pet ownership CAUSES better health in their owners. Indeed, it is possible, perhaps even likely, that the causal arrow points the other way -- that healthier people are more apt than non-owners to have the energy, motivation, and financial resources to take care of a pet. In other words, good health may lead to pet-keeping rather than vice-versa.
Third: The Health Care Costs of Keeping a Pet.
Surprisingly for an economic analysis, the HABRI report contains no discussion of the medical costs of living with animals. Here are some examples.
By my rough calculations, the total health-related costs associated with our animal healers total $28,866,000,000 – about two and a half times the estimated savings that accrue from the presumed health benefits of companion animals. (If you add other costs of pet ownership such as food, toys, and pet sitters, the benefit to cost ratio of America’s four-legged therapists drops to 1 to 5.)
The Bottom Line….
There are probably some health benefits to living with a companion animals. Scientists, however, have not established the size of the benefit or why some people and not others benefit from living with pets. And if the pet products industry wants to encourage people to get pets because companion animals will help solve our national health care crisis, they should also include the costs of pet ownership in their analyses.
Don’t get me wrong. I have always had companion animals, and I know there are plenty of reasons to bring pets into our lives. But despite what the headlines say, it is a mistake to adopt a puppy or a kitten on the basis of misleading news reports claiming that getting a pet is going to improve your health and reduce your medical bills.
After all, annual lifetime cost of owning a pet in the United States has been estimated to run upwards of $10,000. And ObamaCare is not going to pay your veterinary bills.
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Hal Herzog is professor of psychology at Western Carolina University and the author of Some We Love, Some We Hate, Some We Eat: Why It’s So Hard To Think Straight About Animals.
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