Author Mark Richards

Britain is famously a nation of animal lovers. But now it seems that the romance might be cooling. Does that say something about us? Or does it really say more about the current state of the UK economy and our housing market?

New research from retail analysts Mintel has highlighted the fact that pet ownership in the UK is in decline. Just 56% of households now own a pet, compared to 63% of households five years ago.

Sadly, it appears that it is the harsh economic realities of modern life that have contributed to the decline, not a decrease in our affection for animals.

As we have written many times, the number of people who cannot afford to buy their own homes and are forced to rent is increasing steadily: more often than not landlords do not allow animals in their property, so pet ownership has become impossible for many in the rented sector.

Pets are expensive

Anyone who has taken an animal to the vets recently will know how much that costs. Add in the cost of food, boarding while you are on holiday and the occasional visit to the Bonny Dog Grooming Parlour and owning a pet becomes a costly business.

We own a dog and a cat: I hesitated before adding up the annual cost, but I was up to around £800 a year, before even routine visits to the vets. If we go on holiday for a week then we can safely add £200 on to the cost of the holiday for boarding kennels. With wages currently failing to keep up with inflation, it is no wonder that pet ownership is declining.

Mintel’s research shows that pet ownership in the UK has fallen across the board. Dog and cat ownership is down slightly: 31% of households now own a dog compared to five years ago, and cat ownership is also down 2% to 29%. It is fish – both tropical and the trusty goldfish – that have taken the biggest dive, with the number of households arguing about whose turn it is to clean the tank out falling from 17% to 10%.

73% of households with children own a pet but worryingly, only 36% of those over 65 have an animal in the house. That is a regrettable statistic: there is very clear evidence that owning a pet is good for both your physical and mental health.

The health benefits of owning a pet

There are any amount of studies showing the beneficial effects of owning – and caring for – animals. I have picked out just four:

We often hear people say, ‘I’m allergic to cats.’ (Or dogs, or whatever animal they are near…) In fact, a study conducted at the University of Wisconsin showed that children who grew up with a pet in the home actually have a lower rate of allergies in later life: children exposed to animals at an early age have stronger immune systems overall. There is also significant evidence that children who grow up with dogs are less likely to suffer from childhood asthma.

Animals – especially dogs – are an instant icebreaker. If you have a dog, you will immediately strike up a conversation with another dog owner. With the UK supposedly on course for an ‘epidemic of loneliness’ – with all its attendant health and social care costs – the benefits a pet can bring to our emotional health are obvious.

Any number of studies have shown that pet owners have lower blood pressure and lower cholesterol. That might come from exercising the dog, stroking the cat or simply having something to love. Whatever the reason, lower blood pressure and cholesterol will lead to a lower risk of heart disease. Evidence also shows that people who have had a heart attack have a better rate of recovery if they own a pet.

Lastly, there is the simple benefit of exercise – especially if you own a dog. Who needs a personal trainer when you have a dog that needs walking twice a day? Studies have shown that new dog owners not only lose weight, they keep the weight off and they are far less likely to be obese than those that don’t own a dog.

Pets at work is on the increase

It is interesting that business owners have been quick to recognise the benefits that pets can bring to the workplace. Google famously describes itself as a ‘dog-friendly’ company and pro-pet policies are especially common among tech start-ups in the USA.

Around 8% of employees in the UK are allowed to take their dogs to work – with the practice having gone on for years in the pet care sector. Mars Petcare – owners of Pedigree, Whiskas and Sheba – started letting staff bring their pets into the office in 2008. Pet charity Blue Cross, founded in 1897, say that dogs have always been welcome in the office.

Nestle began allowing its 1,000-plus employees to bring their dogs into its City Place HQ in 2015. So far, 56 staff have gone through the ‘pawthorisation’ process (I apologise: this is a subject which is just crying out for bad puns). Once the dog in question has passed this rigorous vetting procedure it receives its own ‘passpawt’ and is allowed into the office. Benefits claimed include a more relaxed working environment and a more sociable office where it is simply easier to meet people and get more work done.

Over to you, Chancellor…

We have listed four clear health benefits of owning a pet. Forward-thinking employers are recognising the improvements that pets can make to productivity. So how about some imagination from the Chancellor of the Exchequer when he delivers his Budget speech next week? What would happen if we had properly joined-up government and a genuine strategy for improving the health of the UK? The Chancellor would use his Budget speech next week to announce a series of tax measures designed to encourage pet ownership, especially among the old and those living alone. Whatever it cost, my guess is that it would generate ten times as much in cost savings for the NHS and the social care budget as it helped to combat both obesity and loneliness.

How likely is it to happen? Sadly, your pet pig is more likely to fly past your window…