If You Want to Reduce National Healthcare Costs Get a Dog

How pet ownership saves us billions of dollars in health care costs each year

Posted Jan 06, 2016

Modified from Yeison Varón Velásquez Creative Commons licence
Source: Modified from Yeison Varón Velásquez Creative Commons licence

Health care is expensive, and your insurance rates reflect that cost. In nations where there are socialized or government supported medical plans healthcare takes a major bite out of their national budgets. However a recent study suggests that one way to reduce health-related expenditures might be to encourage pet ownership.

A new report by the Human Animal Bond Research Initiative (HABRI) Foundation* presents research done by Terry Clower and Tonya Neaves from George Mason University in Virginia. It highlights and quantifies the healthcare savings resulting from pet ownership, in real dollars and finds a meaningful economic impact.

Dr. Clower summarizes his research saying, "There was abundant research to show that pets have a positive effect on our health, [click here or here to see some of that research] but this is the first time that anyone has looked at the impact on the US healthcare system, Our analysis shows that pet ownership produces meaningful savings for total health care costs in the United States."

This report focused on only two aspects of healthcare costs. The major one was based on the fact that pet owners tend to visit their doctor's office less frequently than do non-pet owners. According to the study, the 132.8 million pet owners in the United States visit the doctor 0.6 times less each year than the average non-pet owners.

This doesn't sound like much of a benefit, but given the fact that the average cost of an office visit to a physician is a $139 you can do the math to see the effect that this has on a national level. Multiply the cost reduction by the number of pet owners and you get a hefty annual saving $11.37 billion in US healthcare costs.

Additional savings were calculated based upon the more than 20 million people who walk their dogs five or more times a week. This group shows a lower incidence of obesity and the researchers conclude that this results in a saving of $419 million in healthcare costs.

There are other health benefits associated with pet ownership (particularly ownership of pet dogs) with many studies showing positive impacts on cardiovascular disease, hypertension, infection control, allergies, stress related problems, blood pressure, and psychological issues, however tabulating the costs associated with these gains is difficult and the researchers wanted to be as conservative as possible in their analysis.

Obviously the amount of money saved due to the benefits of pet ownership that is reported here is quite impressive, but the results of this study are specific to the United States, which has the highest healthcare costs per person in the world.

Suppose that we wanted to see what the health care savings of pet ownership is in other countries. We can take advantage of the methodology used in the current report as a starting point. To begin with we have to make adjustments based upon population differences and the average cost of healthcare in each country since the national savings in healthcare costs is based on a total summed up across the population. Since the major savings come from reduced visits to the doctor let me stick to that in my reanalysis. I will still use the most conservative numbers when making my estimates. So let's see what pet ownership can do in terms of reducing national healthcare costs in countries other than the United States.

Based upon the population statistics for the year 2014, and the average cost of medical care per person from data provided by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries in 2013 (converted to US dollars), we can compute what the average savings  would be in medical costs resulting from the lower number of physician visits for pet owners. These cost savings are shown in the table below. 

SC Psychological Enterprises Ltd
Source: SC Psychological Enterprises Ltd

So simply focusing on the fact that if you own a pet you need to go to the doctors less often each year, even in countries where the healthcare costs are lower, and the populations are smaller, we find significant savings at the national level amounting to hundreds of millions up to billions of dollars depending upon the particular country.

A good summary of the situation comes from HABRI Executive Director, Steven Feldman, who says "Thinking about things that people should do to maintain their health, 'get a pet' belongs on that list. When health insurance companies are looking at wellness incentives to keep costs down, pet ownership provides another way for people to stay healthy and save money."

Stanley Coren is the author of many books including: The Wisdom of Dogs; Do Dogs Dream? Born to Bark; The Modern Dog; Why Do Dogs Have Wet Noses? The Pawprints of History; How Dogs Think; How To Speak Dog; Why We Love the Dogs We Do; What Do Dogs Know? The Intelligence of Dogs; Why Does My Dog Act That Way? Understanding Dogs for Dummies; Sleep Thieves; The Left-hander Syndrome

Copyright SC Psychological Enterprises Ltd. May not be reprinted or reposted without permission

*Data from: Terry L. Clower and Tonya T. Neaves (2015, December). The Healthcare Cost Savings of Pet Ownership. Human Animal Bond Research Initiative (HABRI): Washington DC, pp. 1-12.

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