Monday, January 11, 2016

Could companion animals reduce healthcare expenditure?

Detail from a mural by Trevor Dickinson and Michael Bell (you can read more about it here).

In "The HealthCare Cost Savings of Pet Ownership", Drs Terry Clower and Tonya Neaves estimate that pet ownership could lead to a total annual health care saving of $US11,789,879,000. That figure is almost a microchip number in length.

So how did they get there?

They reviewed literature on impact of pet ownership on health in developed Western nations: Germany, the UK, Canada and Australia.

They looked at the impact of pet ownership on two aspects of health:
  • Number of visits to the doctor;
  • Estimated incidence of obesity among dog owners who walk their dogs frequently (5 or more times a week - alas, this accounts for less than one quarter of dog owners which is a worthy topic of discussion in itself).

Assuming that households with one or more dogs represent 44 per cent of US households; that the average pet owner visits the doctor 0.6 times less per year than the average non pet owner, and that the average visit costs around $139, the total savings related to doctor visits would be $11,370,651,000.

Assuming that 23 per cent of dog owners walk their dogs more than 5 times per week, and assuming that obesity among people who regularly walk their dogs is 5 per cent lower than non pet owners, savings related to obesity treatments are in the order of $419,228,000.

Add those together and you get $11,789,879,000.Which gives a stunning insight into the costs of healthcare in general. And it certainly presents a compelling argument for walking the dog (if not for the dog's own environmental enrichment and mental health).

There are some limitations of the study. It draws on a limited bank of literature and unfortunately not all available evidence is published in peer-reviewed journals. In addition, many of the studies employ quite small sample sizes.

It is also difficult to distinguish between the benefits of cat and dog ownership. I don't walk my cats, and if I relied on them to prompt my physical activity I probably wouldn't leave the house (or get out of bed, except to feed them). As someone who walks a senior, 2kg dog, I have to say that while he gets more than 5 walks a week I don't rely on these walks to maintain my fitness. They can be very short walks and tend to involve a lot of stopping so we can smell the roses. It’s also impossible from the data examined to determine when or how pets may be more beneficial for some people than others.

So there are many ifs involved. However, the authors have been deliberately conservative in their estimates. If it is the case that pet ownership may save Governments and health insurers this degree of money, it’s a great reason for Governments to enable pet ownership - for example by making it easier for older people to have companion animals in nursing homes, and supporting low-income pet owners, for example.

You can read the full report (approximately ten pages) here

On another note, I've been keeping an eye on the stats for this blog and it appears that my post on Veganuary is going off like a rocket, which is interesting. For those who are wondering, it isn't all mung beans and tofu at this end. I made these bad boys and took them to work, and 100 per cent of the nurses agreed they were indeed "totes amazeballs".