Why the Wild Things Are

Animals and nature in the lives of children.

The Healing Lick

Here's why pets may be good medicine for children.

The mother-of-all-flu seasons is upon us. We are all miserable. Did you know a quick pick-me-up is panting under the table or curled up on a sunny windowsill? Your pet—dog, cat, gerbil, bird, whatever—may be surprisingly good medicine for what ails you, and just might keep you healthier. Overall, about 63% of U.S. households own pets, with similar percentages in other industrialized countries. In fact, pets are more likely in households with children than in any other household type. In surveys, mothers and fathers say they bring animals into their homes “for the kids”, and soon everyone describes these pets as family members. Many of us think it’s just common sense that having pets around will be good for the kids. But, what does psychology tell us about the health effects of pets on children?

Traditionally, fathers, siblings, grandparents—all are obviously important in shaping a child’s environment. Compared to them, dogs, cats, fish, birds, even horses seemed to be fine companions for kids and made for cute photo-ops, but little more. In recent years though, the new field of human-animal interaction, or HAI, has grown steadily. Studies have begun to pinpoint the health benefits of pets…as well as a few health cautions. Here are some key ways that an animal in the family might be good medicine for your child.

Get moving! Our national epidemic of obesity makes the search for a healthier life style urgent. It’s not just humans who are expanding, but our dogs and cats are increasingly overweight. It’s encouraging news to find that dog owners––whether adults or children––get more physical activity than similar folks without pets. While research has not yet shown that walking the dog actually sheds human or doggie pounds, it’s still a promising hypothesis.

Chill out! Being around a calm, friendly animal is relaxing, as anyone who’s zoned out when stroking a cat’s fur will tell you. Children who read aloud in the presence of a dog have lower blood pressure than when reading without the dog present. The same relaxation effect occurs with adults. Pets are a proven stress reducer. In a number of studies, across varied cultures, children report that they derive from their pets a sense of emotional support and hence, less stress. Even though Fido or Fluffy can’t understand their words, children feel heard and understood.

Feel better! Could children with pets be less likely to get asthma or allergies? The “hygiene hypothesis” claims that rising rates of these problems come from young children’s lack of exposure to common allergens, including dog and cat hairs. As a result, children lack immunities to such allergens and are more susceptible to them. The “hygiene hypothesis” is still controversial, but evidence is mounting that exposure to animals during infancy may be protective against later allergies. (Results are weaker when it comes to protecting against later asthma.)

Our furry and feathery family members also may be good for our general health. Pet owners make fewer doctor visits and feel healthier than do their counterparts without resident animals, according to large scale surveys in Germany, Australia, and China. Skeptics might counter that pet owners may start out healthier than others. This possibility seems less likely now that prospective studies––those that follow people over time—find that pet owners report feeling less healthy when they lose their pet.

A few health cautions. Dogs may be man’s and woman’s best friend, but dog bites are the second most common reason (after bicycle accidents) for a child’s visit to the Emergency Room. In fact, 60% of all dog bites happen to children, with most injuries to the face. Luckily, this is a problem that can be addressed easily. Responsible pet ownership means training dogs to be around children, and training children in “doggie etiquette.” Similarly, zoonotic diseases––those transmitted from animals to humans––can be prevented by teaching children proper hand washing before and after handling animals and animal products, such as doggie toys, litter boxes, and cages. A few simple safeguards can ensure that pets remain just what the doctor ordered.

Gail F. Melson, Ph.D., is Professor of Child Development and Family Studies at Purdue University.

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