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Fewer Americans have pets, but dogs still lead the pack

Fewer American families have cats and dogs in their homes today than six years ago, a possible effect of changing family structures and a lingering sober economy.

That’s the theory of the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA). Its most recent survey found that between 2006 and 2011, the number of American households with pets decreased by 2.8 million.

Dogs remain part of the family in 36.5 percent of homes, while cats find favor in 30.4 percent of households. But Americans have 2 million fewer dogs and 7.6 million fewer feline friends than they did in 2006, according to the AVMA’s 2012 U.S. Pet Ownership and Demographics Sourcebook presented this week at its convention in San Diego.

While dogs are found in more homes than any other pets, cats outnumber them, 74.1 million compared to 70 million. The data was based on household surveys of more than 50,000 Americans.

“We didn’t ask direct questions as to why, but certainly everyone involved with the study tends to think that it has something to do with the economy,” AVMA spokesman Michael San Filippo told the Deseret News. “Pets cost money for food and toys, and if you take a trip, pet sitters, as well as veterinary care. All those things do cost money.

“As people have lost pets in the past five years, since the downturn, it seems people have not been as quick to get another pet. That could be one money-saving move. That downturn in the economy is reflected in our numbers.”

Can’t afford it

The Humane Society of Tampa Bay, Fla., averages about 100 to 120 pet adoptions a week and has held pretty steady in its ability to find homes for dogs and cats that come in, according to adoption manager Ben Moehnert. But it’s clear there, too, that the economy has been disruptive for pets.

When the housing bubble burst, in particular, he said, more pets were relinquished to the shelter. “One of the biggest reasons they’re turned in is people have lost their home and are moving to an apartment that doesn’t allow pets. We’ve been lucky enough to find adoptive homes.”

San Filippo of the veterinarian group points out that routine pet preventive health care saves both money and prevents illness that can lead to suffering. Pets should have at least an annual checkup with dental care and be current on vaccinations, he said.

Family dynamic

The survey also looks at how people feel about their pets — and the economy has not produced a downturn in affection.

“The bond between people and their pets is strong and getting stronger over the last couple of generations in particular,” San Filippo said. “Dogs are not sleeping as much in a dog house; they’re in our houses with us. Many think of pets as members of the family. And they not only make us happier, but healthier. Dogs get us out of the house to go for a walk. Anecdotally, they help with mental health issues like depression. Maybe you don’t want to get out of bed, but that dog is looking up with his big eyes and a leash in his mouth, ‘Take me for a walk.’ And studies clearly show blood pressure is lower for pet owners; they lessen stress. They’re just great to have around, fun and entertaining and they love us.”

When you ask Jennifer Bright, dog groomer, why one of her dogs, Sir Barks-a-lot, goes with her everywhere, she tells you it’s because of the trait that earned him his name. He’s a 7-year-old Schnauzer-Shih tzu mix who is prone to a little anxiety. Her other dogs, Princess Kisses, a Shih tzu, and Yorkie terrier Lilly, are calmer.

She can’t image life without her pets. “I love the unconditional love that they have for me. I feel good when I take good care of them … They are soft to pet and warm on your lap. I love their playfulness. I even love that Sir B. barks,” Bright said with a laugh. “I don’t need a doorbell.”

“Basically, we find that just about everyone who has pets really loves their pets,” said Inga Fricke, director of sheltering and pet care issues for the Humane Society of the United States. “They just can take care of them differently based on the resources they have available to them. We’re doing research on under-served communities … people living in poverty. Many have pets and love their pets just as much as people in more affluent areas. They just don’t have as much access to programs and care.” The agency is looking at ways to improve that access to care, she added, so more people can enjoy the benefits of pets.

WebMD reported that having pets “helps lower blood pressure and lessens anxiety. They boost our immunity. They can even help you get dates.” Dogs can encourage people to go for walks and get regular exercise. And studies have shown, it noted, that kids who grow up in homes with a cat or dog are less likely to develop allergies.

The cost of care

Cat owners are more apt to have multiple cats. The report says the average is 2.1 per household, while for dogs the number is 1.6. But dog owners are “more dedicated to providing their beloved pets with appropriate veterinary care,” the group said. Veterinary care for dogs increased 9.2 percent from 2006 to 2011, while cat care decreased 4.4 percent. In all, dog care accounted for 130.4 million visits to the vet, compared to 60.5 million visits for cats.

Without question, pet ownership has a cost, which calls significant. With medical care, food, boarding, grooming, treats and toys, it says the average annual cost of owning a dog is $1,571, while a cat costs about $919.

Veterinary care for the two popular types of pets totaled $26.5 billion in 2011.

Research has shown that pets can provide great value, particularly to the elderly who may be lonely. In a study by researchers in the United Kingdom that was published in the journal BMJ, 90 percent of pet owners said they consider their creature a valued family member. Those same researchers found “particular value” in pet ownership, including possible health benefits, for patients recovering from major illness and for older people.

However, the study also noted that some people might choose to ignore health advice if it would cause issues with a pet. For instance, people who are told they should get rid of a cat because of allergies might keep it anyway. And it’s conceivable, even, that someone would choose not to seek care if it would mean a hospitalization and inability to care for the pet.

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