Kids and Pets

As we’ve got pets and kids and genuinely believe that they are healthier for it, I thought it was worth looking into this a bit more for some facts. It is estimated that 46% of households in the UK have pets, with dogs and then cats the most common animals. And there have been a few studies done on the benefits of children and pets. I found articles published in the Telegraph, the Guardian and the Daily Mail. You might be surprised to learn that pets aren’t just got for a child’s physical health but also for their emotional well being.

Pets and Health

The evidence on the benefit of having cats in reducing allergies is inconsistent, but some research shows that pets make children healthier. There have been various studies (and I’m happy to show you them if you are interested in the figures) that found, that during their first year of life, those whose parents had dogs or cats had fewer colds and ear infections and needed fewer courses of antibiotics than those from homes without pets. Dogs offered more protection than cats. Pets who spent less than six hours a day in the house had the most beneficial effect: the researchers think this is because they brought in more dirt from outside to stimulate the babies’ immune systems. And I can second that. Jana only had antibiotics once, and she’s 4 now, with Solomon haven’t needed any yet.

One study suggested that playing with animals also includes the pet licking the child. “That lick transfers bacteria that live in animals’ mouths, and the exposure to the bacteria may change the way the child’s immune system responds to other allergens.” Not sure if I want to think about that in too much detail, but Spock certainly licks our children – just to tell them to go away when they get too much… And then there is the sharing of toys. As well know little ones pick up anything they like the look of – stones, cat food and of course dog toys…

These studies also bolstered the notion that keeping infants’ environments overly sanitized isn’t good for their health. “We think the exposure to pets somehow matures the immune system so when the child meets the microbes, he might be better prepared for them,” says Dr. Eija Bergroth, a pediatrician at Kuopio University Hospital in Finland who led one of those studies.

The studies also underscores the importance of timing when it comes to pet exposure: so far, all the evidence suggests that early exposure to pets may be most helpful in lowering children’s risk of allergies and asthma. That’s because during the first year of life, babies’ immune systems are still learning how to recognize microbial friend from foe, and it could be that early training with low-dose exposures in the form of pet hair may be beneficial.

So clearly there is a link between physical healthy and pet ownership. But what about other benefits?

Pets and Fitness

One in ten British parents say owning a pet has helped their child lose weight, while nearly half say their child is fitter and healthier because they own a dog or a horse.

Recent research from St George’s, University of London, supports this: it found that owning a dog could help lower the risk of childhood obesity, as dog-owning families take part in more physical exercise and are less sedentary.

Dr Carri Westgarth, Epidemiology and Population Health Researcher at the University of Liverpool pointed to walking and playing with dogs as reasons why there is a clear correlation between dog ownership and improved fitness, adding that this trend isn’t seen with any other type of pet.

She said: “Generally, when looking at the population as a whole, if you own a dog you are more physically active, and this goes for children as well, in terms of increased physical activity levels.”

Well we are out in any weather with the dog. While the kids spend a lot of that time in the pushchair, quite often Jana will be running around with the dog, and they certainly play. It’s lovely to see actually.

Pets and Learning

A tenth of parents in a pets at home study, which surveyed over 4,000 people, also attributed a boost in their child’s schoolwork to owning an animal.

Mary Renck Jalongo, PhD, education professor at Indiana University of Pennsylvania and author of The World of Children and Their Companion Animals. Educators have long known that bringing therapy animals (mostly dogs) into schools helps developmentally challenged kids learn. Now they are finding that all children can benefit from the presence of a nonjudgmental pal with paws. In one study, children were asked to read in front of a peer, an adult, and a dog. Researchers monitored their stress levels, and found that kids were most relaxed around the animal, not the humans. “If you’re struggling to read and someone says, ‘Time to pick up your book and work,’ that’s not a very attractive offer,” Dr. Jalongo says. “Curling up with a dog or cat, on the other hand, is a lot more appealing.”

Pets and Anxiety

This one is probably rather obvious to those of us with pets (and possibly those without as well). In the Pets at Home study mentioned earlier three quarters of parents said that owning a pet has improved their child’s anxiety.

In another study, children were asked what advice they would give less-popular kids for making friends. The top answer didn’t focus on a cool toy or must-have sneakers. It was: Get a pet. Whether a hamster or a horse, Dr. Jalongo says, an animal gives a child something to talk about and a shared interest with other kids. I found this one particularly interesting!

Animals are also a great source of comfort. Dr. Melson asked a group of 5-year-old pet owners what they did when they felt sad, angry, afraid, or when they had a secret to share. More than 40 percent spontaneously mentioned turning to their pets. “Kids who get support from their animal companions were rated by their parents as less anxious and withdrawn,” she says.

Pets and Self-Esteem

There’s research showing that kids with family pets have higher self-esteem. Why? Probably because they have a four-legged (or two-legged) creature to love who loves them right back, and a friend to talk to and play with when no one else is around.

Pets and Nurturing

Dr. Melson began studying the impact of pets in order to learn how human beings develop the ability to care for others. “Nurturing isn’t a quality that suddenly appears in adulthood when we need it,” she says. “And you don’t learn to nurture because you were nurtured as a child. People need a way to practice being caregivers when they’re young.”

In our modern world, there’s little opportunity for kids to provide for other living things aside from pets. In many other countries, siblings look after one another, but in our western culture that’s not so widely done.

So how are the seeds of good parenting skills planted during childhood? Dr. Melson believes one way is through pets. In her research, she tracked how much time kids over age 3 spent actively caring for their pets versus caring for or even playing with younger siblings. Over a 24-hour period, pet-owning kids spent 10.3 minutes in caregiving; those with younger sibs spent only 2.4 minutes.

“Nurturing animals is especially important for boys because taking care of an animal isn’t seen as a ‘girl’ thing like babysitting, playing house, or playing with dolls,” Dr. Melson says. By age 8, girls are more likely to be involved than boys in baby care both inside and outside their homes, but when it comes to pet care, both genders remain equally involved.

Pets and Family Bonds

One of the biggest benefits of having pets is often unexpected, even for parents who grew up around animals: They can help families grow stronger and closer. “Whenever I ask children and parents if their pets are truly part of the family, most of them seem surprised—and almost offended—at the question,” Dr. Melson says. The most common response: “Of course they are!” And I can totally second that.

A pet is often the focus of activities that families do together. Everyone takes the dog for a walk, or shares in grooming and feeding him, or gets down on the floor and plays with him. There are even benefits from simply watching a cat chase his tail or a fish swim in his tank. Spending time like this offers the wonderful potential of slowing down the hectic pace of modern life. If someone asks what you’ve been doing, you might respond “nothing.” And in this era of overscheduled children and parents who are constantly on the go, “nothing” can be an important thing to do.

Pets and Teaching Values

With a pet in the house, even the youngest toddler can pick up a few pointers about responsibility. Of course you’ll take on most of the pet-care chores, but your tot will absorb a lot from your nurturing example, like the importance of being kind and gentle. He can even lend a tiny hand with the easier jobs, like pouring food into a dish. By pitching in, he’ll realize that pets, just like people, need food, shelter, exercise, and love, teaching him valuable lessons about empathy and compassion.

Owning and caring for an animal also has positive effects on children’s behaviour, with 58% of parents saying their children have become more responsible since bringing an animal into the home.

Over a quarter of Brits say having a pet has improved how their child behaves, while two thirds of parents whose children have behavioural issues said their child has shown improvement thanks to the support of a pet.

The Verdict

Of course I am biased on this one. We have pets and love them. They are simply part of our family. I could not imagine life without them. Bottom line is though you shouldn’t get a pet expressly to protect your child from colds, but you also don’t need to worry about getting rid of Rover out of fear that he may do harm by nuzzling up to your newborn. Pets are a big responsibility – and they are for life not just for Christmas. So do your research about the pros and cons about the particular pet/breed you are planning to get and be ready to commit to the decision whole heartedly. I for one can say though that you won’t regret it. Pets are great and our kids are so much better for having them in their lives.

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