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Do Pets Really Reduce Healthcare Costs?

Claims that pets promote health oversimplify the complex psychology of ownership

Two years after Hal Herzog’s incisive debunking of their claim, Human Animal Bond Initiative's website still features their estimate that pet ownership saves $11.8 billion each year in U.S. healthcare costs. Last year, the University of Lincoln, backed by Mars UK, published a booklet entitled “Companion Animal Economics” which suggests the same may be true of the UK—in this case, a saving of up to £2.45 billion annually.

George Hodan public domain/Alan Peters used with permission
Source: George Hodan public domain/Alan Peters used with permission

Such claims need to be treated with extreme caution. No-one has yet demonstrated convincingly that obtaining and caring for pets directly improves their owners’ health: indeed, there are several published studies that show the opposite (here and here). One large survey in Sweden found that pet owners took several more sick days each year than non-owners; presumably, that would have a substantial negative economic impact if extrapolated to the UK or the U.S. (not that I’m suggesting it should be). Furthermore, in the UK, where healthcare is intended to be free at the point of delivery, there is an additional, ethical dimension: is it justifiable to encourage people to take on the considerable expense of pet ownership, simply to save the UK taxpayer a substantially smaller sum?

Even in those studies that have found a link between pet ownership and uptake of healthcare, no proof has been forthcoming that the pet is the cause and owner wellbeing is the effect, although the economic models seem to make that assumption. There are several other plausible mechanisms that could explain why this particular association sometimes emerges. It could be that people who are healthier to begin with are more likely to commit to ownership of a pet—which would make above-average health a cause of pet ownership, rather than the other way around. Furthermore, pet ownership is a choice, and many factors' including but by no means limited to health, will influence whether some people choose to add an animal to their household while others do not. Personality, income, experience and even genetics all play a part, resulting in a multiplicity of differences between pet owners and non-owners, even within a single geographical area.

Another problem with generalizations about “pet ownership” is that pets come in different shapes and sizes, and have different demands. Dogs have to be walked, so it is not surprising that some studies have found greater levels of physical activity among dog owners than non-owners. Not among all owners, however—one recent study concluded that acquiring a dog did not, on the whole, lead to an increase in health-promoting physical exercise among its subjects (people living alone). Pets other than dogs are unlikely to serve as a stimulus for exercise anyway, yet the same study found that cat owners self-rated their health higher than non-owners, if not quite so high as dog owners did. However, the overall “pet effect” on health was dragged down almost to zero by ratings provided by the owners of pets of other species (mainly fish, birds, rodents, rabbits, and reptiles), who were much more likely to be obese and to feel unhealthy even than non-owners. Owners must have their reasons for choosing one type of pet over another, pointing to yet more largely unexplained variation within the habits and lifestyles of “pet owners”.

Even within one type of pet, illogical differences in apparent health benefits point to the existence of so-far uncharacterized factors affecting the decisions made by owners. One recent large-scale study of Swedish adults found substantial and largely inexplicable differences in health status between owners of different types of dog, even after correcting (statistically) for “sex, marital status, the presence of children in the home, population density, area of residence, region of birth, income and latitude”.

Wikimedia Commons
Male car owners take less exercise but enjoy better health than those with no car.
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Extrapolating from other fields of inquiry, the complex relationship between lifestyle, exercise and health which seems to trip up so much of pet ownership research should come as no surprise. For example, car ownership, which reduces physical exercise, has a positive association with health, at least among men, prompting a search for psychological mechanisms such as enhanced self-esteem.

It seems extraordinarily premature, therefore, to extrapolate from the will-o’-the-wisp connections between pet ownership and health to the promotion of pet ownership as a sure-fire way of reducing healthcare costs. Especially when the costs would be transferred from the state to the individual, as they would be in the UK.

The UK’s health insurers don’t seem to believe in the “pet effect”. When I asked BUPA, the UK’s leading provider, whether they took it into account, they simply replied, “We don’t consider pet ownership when assessing premiums”.

There’s also a welfare dimension. People who are persuaded to take on a pet in the belief that it will somehow make them healthier may subsequently abandon the animal when they come to realize the true costs and responsibilities that come with it.

Pets undoubtedly give their owners a great deal of pleasure. We don’t yet know enough about why some people find the company of animals more enjoyable than others do, but we can be reasonably certain that the impact of pet-keeping on public finances is too complex to reduce to a single headline about supposed savings in healthcare costs.

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