The Pet Factor – Editorial

Editorial

In 2008, Hollywood superstars Owen Wilson and Jennifer Aniston starred in Marley & Me – a heart- warming film about the impact that an uncontrollable pet dog has over a young couple as they start a family together. Described after its release by Variety as “likely to be irresistible to almost everyone but cats”, the movie has gone on to become one of the most recognisable in the genre. But far from being a work of fiction, the film is in fact based on the real-life memoir of John Grogan, centred on his family’s dog which, despite significant behavioural issues, was eventually loved by the whole family, having a profound effect on them when he died. The tale is one of love, acceptance, trust and grief, and is reflective of the relationship humans have with their pets all across the world, including in 67% of all households in the US.

Pets contribute a total of $223 billion to the US economy

Since the global COVID-19 pandemic began, research and data suggests more people are seeking to purchase or to adopt a pet than ever before.

In the UK, for example, inquiries through the Puppy Portal (an online platform for purchasing dogs) increased by 140%, while the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals reported a 600% increase in visits to dog fostering pages. While there are inevitably well-founded concerns about the numbers of pets being acquired, and their welfare, our research of UK households conducted by Ipsos MORI shows that the vast majority of those acquiring pets are existing pet owners. This demand among existing pet owners points to the positive experience of spending more time with their pets during lockdown.

Naturally, when we consider what benefits our pets might provide, we assume that “companionship” or “exercise” are the principal offerings. Unsurprisingly, our Ipsos MORI research tells us that 87% of British dog owners see their dog as a companion and 80% agree that their dog keeps them physically active. However, as the articles in this journal outline, some researchers believe that there are a myriad of ways in which a pet can benefit us, including supporting childhood development, giving us a sense of responsibility and reducing our risk of developing cardiovascular disease. In this way, pets could have an important and rounded effect on our wellbeing. The meta-analysis done for this journal looks at the levels of physical activity and number of visits to a doctor by pet owners versus non-pet owners; pet owners are more active and healthier and visit the doctor less.We just don’t yet know why.

The idea that a pet enhances the status quo of human and economic health is a phenomenon that this journal has coined the ‘Pet Factor’. We conducted a meta-analysis based on an extensive research and literature review which yielded 139 data sets from 48 papers. This work covers multiple countries and a wide range of health conditions from physical activity and general wellbeing, cardiovascular health, mental health, through to the impact on children’s development and the effects on health of older people. This proliferation in academic interest in the benefits of pets, which has accelerated during the last decade, is welcome but, relatively speaking, our understanding is constrained by data limitations and the depth of research to date. While we can confidently say that, for example, having a dog means that you are likely to get more physical activity, the opinions over ‘to what extent’ vary. This nuanced difference in opinion is noticeable across this journal and one that we embrace, showing us there is often a mismatch between our own experience of a bond with our pet and what the current research is telling us.

Our analysis has drawn on all accessible published work to give the most rounded understanding of the themes and results to date. The conclusions are based on global research papers including source material from countries like Sweden and Japan; however, the main body of work concerned four main geographies: the US, the UK, Germany and Australia.

 

POPULATION HEALTH

The crux of this project was to answer one simple question – “to what extent does a pet benefit an individual’s health and, therefore, what is their collective impact on society?”. Key to the answering of this question is the ‘multiplier’, which is a measure of how much healthier pet owners are relative to non-pet owners – essentially a quantification (taken from an average of the numerical data available in the research) of how much more active and healthy pet owners are compared to non-pet owners, ranging across health conditions (physical, mental and heart health), age demographics and countries (primarily the US, the UK, Germany and Australia).

When we examine the analysis, there are some overarching themes that are evident. Typically, pet owners are generally 1.6x or 60% more physically active than non-pet owners, helping them to maintain a better level of general health. Other general multipliers are 1.3x for heart health, which means pet owners have 30% better heart health than non-pet owners, and 1.2x for mental health – meaning that an individual pet owner is 20% less inclined to feel lonely, isolated, anxious or depressed.

Pet owners are generally 60% more physically active than non-pet owners, helping them to maintain a better level of general health. 

Another clear theme that came out of the research was the variance across age groups. For example, children with a pet typically are 11% healthier relative to children without pets. Key gains are in emotional health through better self-esteem, an ability to combat loneliness through the companionship that pets provide, and increased social skills and behaviours. Meanwhile, adults with a pet are typically 50% healthier than their non- pet counterparts, with heart health almost 30% better and mental health 20% better than non-pet owners. In the UK, elderly pet owners are 68% more physically active than non-pet owners and overall, internationally are 25% healthier than those without a pet; have 35% better mental health and 24% better heart health than non-pet owners.

 

THE PET ECONOMY

The second stage of the project was to develop a broad economic evaluation. This required additional data inputs, such as national expenditure on health and levels of pet ownership.These verticals were broken up by type of pet and split by age demographics, value of the national pet care sector and the wider societal costs of pet ownership (for example, insurance claims for animal-inflicted injuries, the costs of sheltering homeless animals and animal welfare law enforcement). Pooling all of this data together, a series of scenarios were run that applied the health multipliers for pet ownership vs non-pet ownership to doctor visits – average doctor visits were factored down for pet owners and factored up for non-pet owners, with the gap between them equalling the size of the health multiplier.

Applying per capita doctor visit costs enabled the relevant health expenditure to be determined for pet owners versus non-pet owners and the reduced spend amongst pet owners vs the overall average expenditure of doctor visits. Allied to levels of pet ownership and respective age demographics, pet owners are healthier than non-pet owners. If this health benefit is, as some researchers suggest it might be, derived from pet ownership, this translates to a potential reduction in healthcare expenditure of between 3% (for the UK, US) and 5% (for Australia, Germany). Precisely, these figures were: AU$10.1 billion for Australia, €20.9 billion for Germany, £6.9 billion for the UK and $117.8 billion for the US.

It is also important to remember that pet care generates substantial economic value in its own right. In Australia, consumers spend AU$12.5 billion on their pets, while in Germany pet owners spend a considerable €17.6 billion. Across food, veterinary services, grooming and cleaning, toys and accessories, parasite prevention and pet insurance, consumers are spending their hard-earned cash in the cumulative billions on their pets.

In Australia, healthcare spending by pet owners may be up to AU$10.1 billion lower than those without pets

Taking this into account means that the potential health benefits derived from pet ownership could roughly double the economic value of pets. For example, in the US consumers spend $106 billion on their pets.When added to a potential $118 billion in reduced healthcare spending, less the costs of pet insurance, related accidents and animal welfare, it makes a total contribution of $223 billion. Indeed, as the Woof Agency has illuminated in this journal, the sheer scale of the pet economy has led to the take off in the latest high-growth industry – the pet influencer industry.

Following lockdown, the world will start to focus on “building back better”. In part, this will involve examining what the pandemic has shown us about the true “health of
our nations” and our resilience to combat a pandemic. Already, emerging research suggests that patients with heart disease, or who are obese, are at higher risk of developing serious illness from COVID-19. As governments, societies and economies shape this rebuild, we believe they should account for the value of pets in a post-pandemic world. Whether it’s boosting the wellbeing of an individual or jumpstarting an economy with consumer spending and reduced healthcare costs – the Pet Factor could make a crucial difference.