Pets can save money for Ire­land’s health ser­vice


PETS are often re­garded as a type of non-es­sen­tial deca­dent Western lux­ury. A new re­port presents a com­pletely dif­fer­ent picture, based on stud­ies of “big data” from pop­u­la­tions around the world. The truth seems to be that pets are so good for peo­ple that the im­prove­ments in phys­i­cal and men­tal health are be­lieved to cre­ate gen­uine sav­ings for na­tional health sys­tems around the world.

The re­port au­thors have gath­ered to­gether ev­i­dence of the eco­nomic and so­cial value of pets, and their con­clu­sion is that pets save Western so­ci­eties mil­lions of euro every year. The three coun­tries that are as­sessed in the re­port are the UK, where the NHS saves around £2.45 bil­lion per year, Aus­tralia, where nearly $2 bil­lion is saved on health costs, and the USA where around $12 bil­lion is saved. If these fig­ures were ex­trap­o­lated to Ire­land on a per capita ba­sis, this would mean the Ir­ish health ser­vice saves around €200 mil­lion as a re­sult of peo­ple own­ing pets.

While this sounds like a mon­u­men­tally huge sum on money, when it’s di­vided be­tween the 4.5 mil­lion peo­ple liv­ing in Ire­land, it equates to sav­ings of €44 per head per year. And when you ex­am­ine the ra­tio­nale be­hind the fig­ure, it’s ob­vi­ous that this fig­ure does make sense: it’s less than one doc­tor visit per per­son.

The main rea­son that pets save our so­ci­ety money is that they con­trib­ute to­wards peo­ple hav­ing bet­ter gen­eral health, re­sult­ing in fewer vis­its to the doc­tor and less ill­ness need­ing costly med­i­ca­tion or hos­pi­tal treat­ment.

The re­port in­cludes some spe­cific ex­am­ples of how pets do this.

First, mul­ti­ple stud­ies have proven that dog own­ers carry out sig­nif­i­cantly more recre­ational walk­ing than non-dog own­ers, and they ex­pe­ri­ence a highly sig­nif­i­cant re­duc­tion in mi­nor health prob­lems. This ef­fect starts dur­ing the first month of pet own­er­ship, and the ben­e­fits are main­tained over time. It’s ob­vi­ous that own­er­ship of a dog forces an owner to change their daily be­hav­iours (if you own a dog, you sim­ply need to take them for a walk), and this is far more ef­fec­tive than try­ing to do it on your own. Stud­ies have gone on to show that el­derly dog own­ers are more than twice as likely to main­tain their mo­bil­ity over time as non-dog own­ers, and they are more likely to walk faster, and to reach rec­om­mended lev­els of daily phys­i­cal ac­tiv­ity. Many other stud­ies have demon­strated that reg­u­lar phys­i­cal ac­tiv­ity im­proves men­tal health, and re­duces the risk of car­dio­vas­cu­lar dis­ease, hy­per­ten­sion, colon can­cer, di­a­betes and a num­ber of other ill­nesses. Fur­ther­more, pet own­ers have sig­nif­i­cantly lower blood pres­sure, plasma triglyc­erides and choles­terol, and pet own­er­ship has been as­so­ci­ated with im­proved one-year sur­vival rates for se­ri­ous heart at­tacks.

The health ben­e­fits of pet own­er­ship ex­tend across gen­er­a­tions: child­hood expo- sure to two or more dogs or cats has been shown to re­duce the like­li­hood of de­vel­op­ing cer­tain kinds of al­ler­gic re­ac­tions and asthma later in life. An­other study showed that hav­ing pets in the home was linked to im­proved im­mune func­tion in chil­dren, in­clud­ing re­duc­tions in res­pi­ra­tory in­fec­tions, ear in­fec­tions and gas­troen­teri­tis.

As well as these im­prove­ments in gen­eral health, there are many proven ben­e­fits of pets to men­tal health. Non-pet own­ers are twice as likely to fre­quently feel lonely com­pared to pet own­ers, and pet own­ers re­port bet­ter hap­pi­ness and health com­pared to non pet own­ers. Pets can ease the bur­den of be­reave­ment, and a strong at­tach­ment to a pet has been as­so­ci­ated with sig­nif­i­cantly less de­pres­sion when a loved hu­man be­ing has passed away.

There are also well es­tab­lished ben­e­fits to chil­dren and young peo­ple from the com­pan­ion­ship of pets. Chil­dren often seek out their pets when up­set, view­ing them as providers of sup­port and com­fort. Pets act as a non-judge­men­tal buf­fer against the stresses of ev­ery­day life, pro­vid­ing a re­as­sur­ing, steady cen­tre of tran­quil­lity in a world which can be too busy and con­fus­ing. Pets also play a role in chil­dren’s cog­ni­tive devel­op­ment, in­clud­ing as­pects like rea­son­ing, de­ci­sion mak­ing, at­ten­tion span and mem­ory. Psy­chol­o­gists now use an­i­mals to help chil­dren with is­sues such as At­ten­tion Deficit Hyper­ac­tiv­ity Dis­or­der (AGHD). I’ve often seen pets teach­ing chil­dren about body lan­guage: af­ter all, an­i­mals can’t talk, so body lan­guage is the only way they can com­mu­ni­cate with hu­mans, and the ba­sic prin­ci­ples of body lan­guage ap­ply across the species. If a child learns to un­der­stand when a dog or a cat has had enough, they’ll recog­nise the same signs in hu­mans (turn­ing the head away, avoid­ing eye con­tact etc). It’s no won­der that chil­dren who grow up around an­i­mals are more self con­fi­dent and so­cially adept: their pets have taught them these skills.

All of these ben­e­fits don’t mean that ev­ery­one should get a pet. If you don’t like an­i­mals, or if your home sit­u­a­tion is com­plex, then it may be that hav­ing a pet is not right for you.

But the con­clu­sion of this re­search does tell us that pets have a real, tan­gi­ble value. Gov­ern­ment poli­cies should recog­nise this value, sup­port­ing pet own­er­ship.

Pets are good for Ir­ish so­ci­ety!

Pets are good for hu­man phys­i­cal and men­tal health

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