By Dr. Becker
Together, U.S. pet owners spend more than $60 billion on their pets each year,1 but this may be peanuts compared to what they give back to you. There's no price that can be put on a pet's love and companionship, of course, but there are more concrete benefits that canbe monetarily measured.
Take, for instance, the health benefits you stand to gain from pet ownership. Researchers from George Mason University (GMU) conducted a study for The Human Animal Bond Research Initiative (HABRI) Foundation, which found Americans save $11.7 billion annually in health care costs due to pet ownership.2
HABRI Executive Director, Steven Feldman, even said, "Thinking about things that people should do to maintain their health, 'get a pet' belongs on that list."
How Does Owning a Pet Save You Money on Health Care?
The decision to add a pet to your family isn't one to take lightly — or make solely based on potential health benefits. That being said, if you have the time, resources and desire for a new lifelong friend, the health gains represent the icing on the cake.
So how did the study arrive at $11.7 billion in savings attributed to pet ownership? It was primarily due to a lower incidence of doctor visits. Pet owners — 132.8 million in all — visited a doctor 0.6 times less than non-pet owners.
The study found the average cost of a doctor visit is $139, which led to savings of $11.37 billion annually in health care costs. About 20 million dog owners also walked their pet five or more times a week, which led to even greater benefits.
The extra pet-related activity lowered the incidence of obesity in this group, leading to another $419 million in health care savings. "The health care cost savings associated with pet ownership is likely to be even greater" than the report detailed, the researchers suggested, because it was limited in its scope.
Pet ownership is also known to positively influence the following health conditions, but more economic data was necessary before the related savings could be calculated:
✓ Infection control
✓ Cardiovascular disease
✓ Blood pressure
✓ Psychological issues
And, as mentioned, the study doesn't take into account the value of your pet's loyalty and companionship — benefits that are priceless. Study co-author Terry Clower, director of GMU's Center on Regional Analysis, told the Washington Business Journal:3
"What we didn't calculate is how much better you feel, [when] you come home after a tough day at the office and your pet is waiting for you. But there's value to that."
It should be noted that the HABRI Foundation, which has funded more than half a million dollars in research related to the health benefits of companion animals, was founded by Petco, Zoetis (a maker of animal medications) and the American Pet Products Association, all of which have a significant stake in pet ownership rates in the U.S.
That being said, though the potential for conflict of interest exists, their findings are in line with many other past studies that have also highlighted the significant health benefits of owning a pet.
Pets Offer Health Benefits to All Ages
Owning a pet offers unique benefits to people at different life stages. Exposure to pets in early childhood appears to be protectiveagainst the development of allergies, even in children at increased risk.
One study, published in the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology, revealed exposure to animal-specific microbes has beneficial effects, including potentially strengthening the infants' immune systems.4
Among children, meanwhile, dog ownership reduces the risk of anxiety. Specifically, one study found only 12 percent of children with dogs suffered from probable anxiety compared to 21 percent of those without.5
Dogs are very responsive to human communicative cues, making them uniquely suited to bolster a child's emerging self-esteem and confidence. In addition, children with type 1 diabetes who actively cared for a family pet were 2.5 times more likely to have control over their glycemic levels than children who did not.
Caring for a pet may encourage self-regulatory behavior that's important for children with type 1 diabetes or other chronic diseases to manage their condition. In adulthood and into retirement, pets provide companionship, help you overcome loneliness and encourage you to stay active.
One of the greatest benefits is often overlooked and that is keeping you focused on the present moment. Pets provide a focal point for your attention and demand a certain structure to your day, something that many miss following retirement.
They also give you a sense of purpose, add humor to your life and act as social facilitators, giving you something to talk about with others. Physically speaking, research shows pets can even help lower your blood pressure and triglyceride levels, which may creep up as you age.6
Now You Can Give Pet Ownership a Trial Run
Adding a pet to your family is "forever" commitment, and choosing the right pet to fit in with your personality and lifestyle is important in forming a happy, healthy and loving relationship.
If you're wary of taking the leap and simply hoping for the best, you may be interested in relatively new programs that allow potential adopters to take home a dog for a "trial run" of sorts.
Some animal shelters allow you to keep a dog overnight or longer to see how she fits in with your family. You'll be able to see her real personality come out once she's out of the stressful situation of being in a shelter and determine how she gets along with your other family members (human and non-human).
If it doesn't work out, you can bring the animal back to the shelter where hopefully, another family will find her. But, chances are, once you spend time with a pet in your home, you'll feel all those physical and emotional benefits that research continues to confirm — and you won't want to let her out of your sight.