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Pets for Children Really Are Worth the Trouble

Social, emotional and physical benefits to children of growing up with animals.

My mother’s parents kept a two-cow, one-tractor farm in Oklahoma’s red-dirt country when I was growing up. My brothers and I had farm jobs while we stayed through the long, hot summer months. At 6 years old, we were charged with watering and feeding chickens and picking strawberries. By 8, we could start collecting, washing and selling eggs, paying for the ones we dropped (the first one was free).

By 9, we were expected to help with Blue Eyes, the small Guernsey milk cow that lived mostly in the barn behind the house. We feared her at first, then loved her. We were stepped on, peed on and licked up and down, but it was my favorite job. Blue Eyes listened patiently as I whined about unfair treatment by my older cousins, endured my clumsy hands as I milked her and seemed grateful when I sat through the night with her, both of us with fevers. Then, of course, she died, not long after she had her first and only calf.

She was a magical short course of life lessons, and she was certainly worth the trouble. She entertained, frustrated, listened to and taught me about interspecies communication, animal reproduction, and death. She didn’t yell at me or tease me or fight with me. She just was. Children learn a lot about the world (but mostly about themselves) by caring for animals, from livestock to turtles. Dogs are everywhere, thankfully, and here are a few of their blessings.

Infants and toddlers who grow up with dogs are less likely to suffer from asthma, eczema or allergies. All that shared licking and grooming seems to awaken the developing immune response with just the right amount of stimulation. When these children do require antibiotics for infections later in life, they need shorter courses of treatment to improve (Bergroth et al., 2012). Dogs also get children off their screens and butts, often seeking mutually comforting affection and sensory contact that phones and tablets can’t offer. Compassion, when dogs are sick, hurt, or just need a hug, comes more easily than it does when an annoying sibling needs help. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has found that a dog at home – in contrast to digital devices – lowers the average levels of stress and anxiety in the household.

Here are some thoughts on how the benefits of parenting with pets can balance out the visions of sleepless nights, ruined carpets, vet bills and poop-disposal rituals that leap to mind when the casual “Oh, your children need a dog!” enters the conversation:

  • Feeling useful to those you love is the mortar of a growing personality, and dog-caring is a great, if imperfect, laboratory. Children who feed, brush and bathe dogs are building self-regard by the minute.
  • A critical conversation is how and when this is going to happen. If you’re not on the same page as your partner, at least aim for the same chapter. Your children don’t need to be part of a dog-life-long quarrel about whether it was a good idea to get “the children” a dog;
  • If children under the age of four are in the home, parents should be on duty when pets and children are together because tempers can flare in an instant and aggression can follow;
  • When (not if) children get lax on the job, you should draw their attention to how that affects the well-being of their pet first, and their relationship with you second.


*Bergroth, E., Remes, S., Pekkanen, J., Kauppila, T., Büchele, G. & Keski-Nisula, L. (2012, August). Respiratory tract illnesses during the first year of life: Effect of dog and cat contacts. Pediatrics, 130(2), 211-220. doi:10.1542/peds.2011-2825d