Numerous studies have shown that owning pets is good for human health, providing benefits such as helping prevent allergies in children, alleviating stress for people suffering from high blood pressure and calming Alzheimer’s patients. This growing body of research helps bolster the case for pet ownership, and more pets means more mouths to feed/more pet food customers. That’s the business case for our industry (comprised mainly of professionals who are also diehard pet lovers), and perhaps that approach—translating the benefits of pet ownership into cold, hard cash—will ultimately have the greatest impact on more people owning pets, including in their senior years.

A new study follows that approach. Funded by the Human Animal Bond Research Initiative (HABRI) and conducted by two researchers from George Mason University, the economic analysis calculated that pet ownership results in US$11.7 billion savings in US health care costs. The researchers arrived at that figure by determining that 132.8 million US pet owners visit a doctor 0.6 times less than the average non-pet owner. With the average cost of a physician office visit at US$139, that comes to US$11.37 billion in savings.

The remaining savings come from dog owners who walk their dogs five or more times a week. This group, totaling more than 20 million, have a lower incidence of obesity, leading to a reduction of US$419 million in health care costs.

The actual health care costs saved by US pet owners is likely higher, considering all the scientific research showing the positive impact of pet ownership on infection control, cardiovascular disease, hypertension, cholesterol, allergies, stress and psychological issues. The George Mason researchers looked at all those studies in their analysis but were unable to determine specific costs associated with the studies, concluding that further economic data is needed before additional health care savings could be calculated.

What does this mean in the long run? Steven Feldman, executive director of HABRI, speculated that perhaps health insurers might take notice: “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.”

According to WebMD, a life insurance company, Midland Life of Columbus, Ohio, already uses pet ownership as part of their medical screening process, asking clients (or potential clients) over age 75 if they have a pet. If so, the website says, this “often helps tip the scale in their favor.”

It remains to be seen whether insurers, or possibly even employers who provide health or life insurance as a benefit for their employees, would act on this new research. More likely is that they will at least take notice (we would hope) and be on the lookout for further research and confirmation, which the George Mason researchers and HABRI seem committed to provide.

Meanwhile, perhaps at least pet owners, especially aging Baby Boomers, will take the new research to heart. Traditionally, pet ownership has dropped off among older people, probably because of physical demands and the cost of keeping a pet. A study showing how owning a pet can save on health care—typically one of the most significant costs for seniors—might help outweigh those concerns.

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dphillips@wattnet.net