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Furry Friends Can Cut Our Health Costs

We save billions because of Fido and Fluffy — here's why

Man will always choose a dog over his best friend. And kittens rule the internet.

Why are both of these things true? Because pets greatly improve our mood and provide a sense of comfort and connection.

Numerous studies over the years have confirmed that pet owners enjoy a wealth of health benefits, including lower levels of stress, better cardiovascular health, an enhanced sense of well-being, fewer allergic sensitivities and lower rates of obesity.

Now a recent study by the Human Animal Bond Research Initiative Foundation, conducted by two researchers from George Mason University, has unleashed a more startling finding: Pet ownership could reduce U.S. health care costs by $11.7 billion.

Could this new finding galvanize the health insurance industry to encourage pet ownership by offering a deduction to pet owners, for example, in an effort to reduce the nation’s $2.7 trillion health-care tab?

Although a number of insurance companies, including New York Life and Liberty Mutual, refused to comment on this possibility, HABRI Executive Director Steven Feldman, co-author of the study, believes health insurance companies should view pet ownership as an incentive to keep costs down.

“Thinking about things that people should do to maintain their health, ‘Get a pet’ belongs on that list,” he said in a statement. “Pet ownership provides another way for people to stay healthy and save money.”

Kathy Santo, a professional dog trainer and pet expert in Ramsey, New Jersey, agreed. “I’ve seen the benefits that pets can have on their owners and families, whether in a service-dog capacity or simply as a companion,” she said in an interview.

Her caveat is that a dog with behavioral issues could produce the opposite effect. “A dog that is not trained and has behavior issues may increase someone’s stress.”

Marie Doto of Upper Saddle River, New Jersey, runs up to three miles a day with Cooper, her beloved German shepherd. She is a firm believer in the health advantages of pet ownership.

“Cooper is my running partner,” Doto said. “He exercises with me, so he keeps me in shape. When I want to take a break and not go running, I’m forced to go running because he loves it so much. I wouldn’t doubt that my low cholesterol is linked to him.”

Doto also points to Cooper as the reason for her low stress level: “He grounds me and makes me happy. Just being with him is so rewarding.”

She doesn’t believe all pet owners experience the same health advantages. She said the notion of a deduction on a health insurance policy to reward pet owners is not logical.

“Some pets don’t help people with their stress and actually make them crazy,” she said. “In my case, it works. But it doesn’t work for everyone.”

‘Fetching’ the savings. Until now, plenty of research has shown that pets have a positive effect on owners’ health, but this is the first time anyone has explored the impact of pet ownership on the U.S. health care system, said study co-author Terry L. Clower. He is the Northern Virginia chair and professor of public policy at George Mason University’s School of Policy, Government, and International Affairs and director of its Center on Regional Analysis.

“Our analysis shows that pet ownership produces meaningful savings for total health care costs in the United States,” he said.

Additional savings were calculated for dog owners who walk their dog five or more times a week.

His report examined the economic benefits of just two areas of health care improvement: physician office visits and treatment for obesity. The highest savings were determined to be based on a lower incidence of physician office visits by pet owners as compared to non-owners.

The study found that 132.8 million pet owners in the United States visit a doctor 0.6 times less than the average non-pet owner. The average cost of a physician office visit is $139. Pet owners, in this way, were responsible for saving $11.37 billion in U.S. health care costs.

Additional savings were calculated for dog owners who walk their dog five or more times a week. This group, totaling more than 20 million people, showed a lower incidence of obesity and were responsible for saving $419 million in related health care costs.

The researchers note that this analysis is conservative. It was too difficult to determine the health care savings for some of the other health benefits associated with pet ownership, such as infection control, cardiovascular disease, hypertension, cholesterol and psychological issues. So the savings are “likely to be even greater,” the report stated.