In times when the state of America’s health care is very much uncertain in light of recent legislative changes and the robust national debate of late, a new scientific study has emerged quantifying an exciting relationship between pet ownership and decreased health care costs.

Most of us know that there is a powerful, positive relationship between pet ownership and well-being. The 2015-2016 American Pet Products Association National Pet Owners Survey reports that 65 percent of U.S. households own a pet, amounting to 79.7 million homes. This is unsurprising considering companion animals provide their human handlers with senses of purpose, consistency and unconditional love.

But a new report by the Human Animal Bond Research Initiative (HABRI) Foundation highlights and quantifies the healthcare savings resulting from pet ownership, in real dollars with meaningful economic impact.

The diverse health benefits associated with pet ownership are familiar to the public and include both physical and mental aspects, such as decreased blood pressure, elevated mood, reduced feelings of stress or anxiety and even recovery from post-traumatic stress disorder.

The benefits of the bond with “man’s best friend” are perhaps most familiar, but studies suggest interactions with different animal species can yield boosts in mood and physical wellbeing. The literature on stress reduction in animal interaction cites the impact of dogs and cats, but also contact with animals such as goats and horses.  

An eye-opening Purdue University study concluded a positive outcome of animal therapy for Alzheimer’s patients residing in long-term care facilities. The findings observed that placing an aquarium in the facility boosted patient food intake, and reduced the need for, and in turn, the costs of nutritional supplementation.

And, American Humane Association is spearheading a current clinical trial revealing that animal-assisted therapy has significant impact in the treatment of children with cancer.

While the positive relationship to human health and the interaction of animals and animal therapy is well-known, until the new HABRI report, no source connected the dots to actual cost savings.  Moreover, HABRI’s  study quantifies the healthcare savings resulting specifically from two main benefits of pet ownership.

First, the report highlights a relationship between pet ownership and decreased medical appointments as compared to non-owners. HABRI conservatively estimates reduction in physician office visits produces savings of about $11.4 billion per year as compared to non-pet-owners.  That’s billions saved thanks to man’s best friend.

Second, the report quantifies the impact of lower obesity rates among dog owners who frequently walk their pets. Research shows one-fifth of pet owners (23 percent) walk their dogs five or more times per week. The incidence of obesity among people who regularly walk their dogs is five percent lower than non-pet owners, which decreases U.S. healthcare spending by $419 million per year.  Millions more saved thanks to man’s best friend.

Considered jointly, these findings, resulting from the reduced frequency of physician office visits and fewer obesity treatments, amount to a whopping total annual savings of nearly $12 billion, perhaps even greater when further data is available.

A staggering nearly 7.6 million homeless companion animals enter animal shelters nationwide every year, tragically with 2.7 million of these potential pets euthanized. Saving an animal life with health improvements and cost savings for the owner—now that’s something to wag your tail about! 

Robin R. Ganzert, Ph.D, is president and CEO of the American Humane Association.