A ten-year old girl comes home from school upset after a fight with her friend. She goes to her room, closes the door and lies on the bed to pet her cat.
A seven-year old boy struggling with reading refuses to participate in class. One day, a volunteer with R.E.A.D. (Reading Education Assistance Dogs) comes with a golden retriever. The three of them sit on pillows as the boy slowly sounds out words in a book. The dog watches and listens.
A thirteen-year old girl gets her first job caring for a neighbor’s dog. She carefully writes down instructions, wakes early to feed and walk him, sits with him while doing homework and brushes his fur. He wags his tail to show appreciation for her job well done.
Kids naturally love the animals in their lives. “Dog” and “cat” are common first words, and children form strong attachments to their pets. While the positive influence of animals is apparent to most parents, there is a growing body of research demonstrating specific benefits for children’s emotional as well as physical health from their interactions with companion animals.
Interacting with animals reduces stress and anxiety in children. It lowers levels of blood cortisol (a stress hormone) as well as blood pressure. The presence of an animal can help children to cope better with stressful situations. This can be valuable in educational settings to promote learning. It can be particularly helpful for children experiencing disruption in their lives, such as moves, deaths in the family or parental separation. Animals can offer consistent and reliable bonds that support children through the stresses of life.
Animals can provide non-judgmental comfort and security. This social support can help children in their interactions with people as well. The calming effect of animals has been shown to be particularly valuable for children with developmental or psychiatric challenges. Therapy sessions that include dogs have been shown to increase attention, sharing and cooperation and reduce behavior problems in children with ADHD. For children with autism, animals in the classroom can reduce anxiety and improve social interaction. Dogs can also facilitate recovery in hospitalized children.
Exposure to pets at a young age may provide protection for children against allergies and asthma. For older children with allergies to certain animals, however, having these pets may not be possible.
Caring for pets has other associated benefits for children. Walking a dog, for example, helps kids get exercise, time outdoors and promotes social engagement and conversation. In their increasing tech-centered lives, this can help relieve feelings of loneliness or isolation. Caring for animals, a first job for many children, can also promote a sense of responsibility and self-esteem.
Of course, living with animals also carries risks. Pets, like people, can get tired or anxious. It is important for children to learn their pet’s cues and not to interact with them when they are showing signs of stress, to avoid scratches or even serious bites. Similarly, protecting against shared infections is critical. Pets need to be kept clean and up to date on their vaccines, and children should wash their hands after interactions.
Companion animals can be a wonderful addition to the lives of children, and can promote their optimal emotional and physical health. It’s no wonder that more than 75% of U.S. homes with children include a pet in their family!