With over half of American households being home to pets, the positive impact of companion animals on well-being has been gaining attention in recent years. While it’s pretty clear that therapy animals do a great job – helping folks cope with stress, manage diabetes, and even prevent epileptic seizures – we know less about the animals who aren’t professionals, the ones that most of us share our everyday lives with.
From a scientific perspective, this is a difficult issue to study, but anecdotes and a growing body of scientific evidence suggest that people with pets tend to be healthier and happier than those without, and that the pets themselves have something to do with this.
Danel Grimmett, DMV at Sunset, explains it this way: “From the perspective of a veterinarian, I see several benefits of children having pets. I usually deal with dogs and cats but other “exotic” pets can be beneficial as well.”
Here are some of the many ways that pets benefit children.
Pets do a body good
Pets can be physically beneficial for children by encouraging activity and promoting healthy immune responses. However, the specific benefits vary according to the type of pet and the child’s relationship to the pet.
Just having a pet around the house can make a difference in children’s general health. A study by Bernd Holscher and colleagues found that exposure to pets, especially dogs, during infancy and childhood is associated with lower rates of asthma later in life and may reduce allergies in general. While Hölscher found most benefits came from dog ownership, kids who grew up with cats around were less likely to be allergic to cats.
In their 2004 study, Charnetski and colleagues showed that simply petting a dog increased immune function, decreasing susceptibility to illness. Interestingly, it didn’t matter whether or not the participants actually liked dogs.
While the experts aren’t yet clear why, data suggests that children with pets are less likely to be overweight or obese. This may be because animals motivate children to get outside and exercise, although the type of pet and the child’s relationship to it will affect this a great deal. For example, owning a dog or a horse encourages kids to be active with their pet; owning a cat or turtle, not so much. Furthermore, since most children don’t help care for their pets, there is no guarantee that having a dog means the child will walk it.
Pets improve the social side of life
Increasingly, pets are described as family members and touted as offering an important opportunity for social connection. Unlike people, pets provide social benefits without some of the pressures that come with human friendship, making animal companionship appealing for both extroverts and introverts. For example, research tells us that dogs increase opportunities for socializing with new people but all pets bring the family together for social interactions and serve as companions for children who are less inclined to socialize with other people.
Dr. Grimmett says that some children see their pets almost like peers. “Many children talk to their pets like people. They include their pets in daily activities. Their pet is available to interact with even when other humans are busy.”
Mathers and colleagues’2010 study revealed that children often have special bonds with their pets. In their study, pets taught the children about trust, compassion, and non-judgment, giving them a “safe”place to turn in times of trouble or sadness.
Dr. Grimmett agrees. “I believe pets teach children to empathize with others. Kids are given positive and negative feedback from the pets they live with,” she explains. “For example, being nice, quiet and calm will encourage a dog to come over and interact with them. If the child is wild, loud and rough, they will likely soon discover that they will not be included in their pets’ activities.”
Pets Teach Character and Coping
In addition to providing companionship, pets may teach children to be better people, helping them learn responsibility and develop coping skills.
While any pet can teach children about responsibility, these lessons are especially significant if the child helps care for the animal. For example, most people who ride horses learn and engage in routine horse care such as grooming or even feeding. Figuring out small tasks a child can help with – feeding, cleaning, walking – will help instill that sense of responsibility and encourage the child to bond with the pet.
Dr. Grimmett sees this kind of learning in our clinic all the time. “In our practice, parents often bring their child to the appointments. While here, I really do try to involve the child in the examination by giving treats as positive feedback and allowing the child to listen to their pets’ heartbeat with a stethoscope. I find it interesting that even at the age of two, the child will often follow listening to their pet’s heartbeat with listening to their parents’ chest or even their own. This experience is teaching them about life functions.”
Horses in particular may offer special benefits when it comes to coping. In her book, Animals in Translation: Using the Mysteries of Autism to Decode Animal Behavior, animal researcher Temple Grandin cites a psychiatrist friend’s opinion that, given the same problems and severity, kids who ride horses do better in the long run than those who do not ride. The intense trust between horse and rider, the size difference between a child and his or her equine companion, and the flight nature of the horse, all require advanced coping skills.
However, because interaction with pets in general teaches compassion, trust, non-verbal communication, and non-judgment, it is likely that regular, healthy, interactions with any pet will help kids develop coping skills such as patience and emotion management.
Of course, there’s another kind of coping that pets help children learn: grief after a loss. Dr. Grimmett believes that pets are incredibly beneficial to children in that they teach mortality. “Often, a child’s first encounter with death involves their family pet. Learning to accept life and death is something children must learn.”
While there is still a lot more research to be done, it is becoming increasingly clear that children benefit from having pets in the home. In order to optimize your child’s relationship with the pet, here are a few things to keep in mind:
* Kids do best if they have a relationship with the pet.
* Different animals provide different benefits and fit different lifestyles.
* Pets can be a lot of work for everyone involved . . . and it’s absolutely worth it!
Dr. Grimmett has a few words of advice to parents who are thinking about adopting a pet: “As a veterinarian and a parent, I do strongly advocate the idea that no young child should ever be allowed to be with a pet unsupervised. The adults must take seriously their responsibility to keep the child or the pet from being hurt.”
On the whole, though, Dr. Grimmett believes that children interacting with pets are being taught many lessons.
“I think animals truly enrich our lives,” she says. “They inspire imagination, creativity, deep emotional responses and often bring out the real “human” in us all.”