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 exposure 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 (ADHD). 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!