Robert M. La Follette School of Public Affairs
Monday, April 20, 2020

Weimer, colleagues calculate value of statistical dog life

Dave Weimer Dave Weimer

With most people confined to their homes due to the coronavirus pandemic, pets often provide much-needed relief from this surreal experience. Pet stores are even considered essential services, while most other businesses are shuttered.

La Follette School Professor Dave Weimer and colleagues from the University of Oklahoma and Pennsylvania State University recently calculated the value of statistical dog life (VSDL). According to their article, Monetizing Bowser: A Contingent Valuation of the Statistical Value of Dog Life, U.S. households spend $70 billion annually on pets – with dogs the most common, suggesting that the VSDL might be substantial.

About the study

Dave Weimer, the Edwin E. Witte Professor of Political Economy at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, launched the study after speaking with a fellow past president of the Society For Benefit-Cost Analysis (SBCA) about the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s Food Safety Modernization Act. 

The legislation included provisions for reducing the risks to people and pets from adulterated pet food, and “he complained that … he had no sound basis for monetizing changes in mortality risks for dogs and other pets,” Weimer said in this SBCA article.

Weimer asked Hark Jenkins-Smith and Carol Silva, two of his former students, to bring their survey research expertise to the project.

They recruited Deven Carlson, who received his master’s degree in public affairs from the La Follette School in 2007, and Joseph Ripberger (both at the University of Oklahoma), and Weimer brought in another former UW student – Simon Haeder, now at Penn State University.

Although Weimer was the impetus behind the project, he is the only one of the six researchers who does not have a dog. “I hope to get one when I retire,” he said.

“An important shadow price in the analysis of policies affecting human mortality is the value of statistical life (VSL), which is imputed from how people make decisions involving tradeoffs between small mortality risks and other goods,” the researchers wrote, noting that the VSDL is important for use in regulation of pet foods, environmental toxins, and other goods.

The previously unavailable VSDL also “would have uses outside the regulatory process in valuing programs involving zooeyia, in setting tort awards for wrongful dog death, and in property divisions in divorce settlements where joint custody of dogs is not feasible,” they wrote in the Spring 2020 issue of the Journal of Benefit-Cost Analysis.

The researchers asked a national sample of dog owners about their willingness to pay for a vaccine that would reduce the risk of canine influenza. Based on their analysis and consideration of its assumptions, they recommend $10,000 as the VSDL.

So how does this apply to their fields of study: political science and economics? Sure, five of them are dog owners, but it goes well beyond that.

“Starting in the 1920s, the federal government initiated efforts to rationalize its decision-making processes by more systematically accounting for potential costs and benefits of public interventions,” three of the authors wrote in this article for The Conversation.

Current federal practice involves assessing the benefits of reductions in mortality risk as if people were valuing their own lives at about $10 million, a number derived from observing tradeoffs people make in their employment and consumption choices involving small mortality risks.

Why does it matter? The most obvious reason, the authors say, is the regulation of the health and safety of pets. For example, numerous cases of contaminated dog food or pharmaceuticals prompted new regulations by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

Tort cases resulting from injuries to and deaths of dogs offer another example. Currently, compensation is based solely on a dog’s market value.

“Our findings illustrate that compensation for owners should be much higher to account for the loss of companionship and associated emotional distress,” the three authors wrote in The Conversation. “Our estimates (also) offer a reasonable reference point to make divorce settlements less contentious, at least when it comes to four-legged companions.”