More Overstated Claims About Pets and Our Health

Claims that "pet ownership saves millions" are misleading and wrong

Posted Mar 01, 2016

The following headline from the latest issue of PetAge (a pet industry magazine) caught my eye:

PET OWNERSHIP SAVES $11.7 BILLION IN HEALTHCARE COSTS

According to a study by the Human Animal Bond Research Initiative (HABRI), there has been an $11.7 billion savings in U.S. healthcare costs as a result of pet ownership.

The study in question was funded by HABRI and conducted by Terry Clower and Tonya Neaves of George Mason University. The economic analysis of cost savings (for example, by fewer office visits for obesity treatment) may or may not be reasonable, as it stands. But regardless, the analysis is misleading, on its own, because it fails to account for the significant healthcare costs associated with pet ownership. To mention just one pet-related burden on the healthcare system: the aggregate cost for dog-bite related in-patient stays during one year (2008), was $53.9 million. If you add on the additional costs of treating people for bites from cats and other species, pet-related falls, and zoonotic disease transmitted from pet to person, the social price tag for pet ownership mushrooms.

So, the “pets save healthcare costs” claim isn’t exactly true. But what’s the big deal about claiming that pet ownership saves millions of dollars, aside from spreading misinformation? Because lives are at stake: the lives of the pets we, as a pet-obsessed society, are currently acquiring at record speed.

Alan Levine, Flickr
Source: Alan Levine, Flickr

To claim that pets are good for our health and our healthcare system turns animals into commodities, alongside cranberry extract and green coffee beans. What gets obscured is the fact that we are talking about sentient creatures, not supplement pills. Yes, having a dog may encourage a person to be active, may lower their stress, and may make them happy. But what if the people who purchase these four-legged health-enhancers aren’t actually committed to giving them the care they need? If you buy a treadmill, with lofty goals of getting more exercise, it only costs you money and self-respect if the machine sits in the basement gathering dust. But if you get a dog, hoping you’ll be inspired to take more walks, not following through actually has real consequences for the animal. Far too many dogs, cats, and sundry other animals are kept in homes that provide less than ideal care: not enough exercise, not enough mental stimulation, not enough social interaction, infrequent veterinary care. It is just not okay to encourage more people to own pets, when already too many pets are gathering dust in crates, cages, basements, and shelters.

It isn’t surprising to find this “research” touted by the Human-Animal Bond Research Initiative, since they published it and (likely) funded it. HABRI was founded by PetCo, the American Pet Products Association, and Zoetis. And what does the pet industry want, other than to sell more animals and animal-related products? In this context—the pursuit of profit—the words of HABRI Executive Director, Steven Feldman, make perfect sense: “Thinking about things that people should do to maintain their health, ‘get a pet’ belongs on that list.”