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The study was done for the Human-Animal Bond Research Initiative.
Researchers compiled data from other studies to come up with their results.
Dog walkers represented the largest cost savings because people who walk their dogs at least five times a week are less likely to be obese than people who get less exercise. The researchers say they save about $419 million in related healthcare costs.
But cats figure into the cost savings, too. Several studies have shown that living with cats and dogs can reduce stress, lower blood pressure and reduce the risk of heart disease. They can also relieve depression.
Interestingly, any kind of "pet," including fish, can also reduce stress and relieve depression.
The researchers also site studies that show young children who live with cats or dogs are less likely to develop allergies as adults and one that suggests perinatal exposure to animal companions likely reduces the risk of children developing allergies in the very early years.
In looking at the economic benefits of living with an animal companion, the researchers considered just the number of physician office visits and the cost of treatment for obesity. Those two areas alone, added up to almost $11.8 billion a year in healthcare savings.
"As this research area attracts more attention and studies are initiated with specific economic variables included to capture potential health care costs savings," the researchers say, "we will gain a much deeper understanding of the greater total economic value of the human-animal bond."
Maybe. And it's an interesting concept. But it's hard to put a price on friendship, and most of us will most likely continue sharing our lives with cats because we love their companionship, not because we want to save our insurance companies money on doctor visits.