We don't need the Dog Whisperer or Dr. Pol to convince us that pets bring joy to our lives, or that children can form bonds with animals that are almost as deep as a human friendship. But what we may not realize is that pets have positive effects on children's mental health, and that these effects are long-lasting.
"Pet ownership can help a child's mental development in many ways," Dr. Jen Trachtenberg, assistant clinical professor of pediatrics at The Mount Sinai Medical Center's Icahn School of Medicine, tells Romper. "Owning a pet has been shown to lower stress and increase relaxation. It encourages healthy habits by increasing physical activity, and it gives a child a sense of purpose."
Research already indicates that having pets benefits kids' physical health in various ways, as TIME reported. Most notably, children who grow up around dogs and cats may be less likely to develop allergies or asthma. One study from Finland found that children born into dog-owning families were less likely to develop colds and ear infections as toddlers as families without pooches.
Now experts are finding that pets have positive effects on children that go way beyond reducing the sniffles. Once you find out just how beneficial animal ownership can be, you might sigh a little less over cleaning up hairballs and going for 6 a.m. walks in 15-degree weather.
1. Pets Make Children Calmer
"Pets help decrease the release of the stress hormone cortisol," explains Dr. Trachtenberg. Interacting with pets or other loved ones also prompts the release of the attachment hormone oxytocin, which is connected to our feelings of generosity and empathy, affirmed Psychology Today. One small study from Bassett Medical Center, in New York, found that only 12 percent of children with dogs showed signs of clinical anxiety, compared with 21 percent of children in dog-free households.
2. Pets Improve Kids' Social Skills
It's hard to be aloof when you're walking a French Bulldog or Labradoodle that's sniffing and happily wagging its tail at everyone it meets. "Walking a dog can increase a child's social interactions and potential social skills," says Dr. Trachtenberg. Pets can act as a buffer or conversation piece, making it easier for a child to interact comfortably with others. But the effect isn't limited to dogs. A recent study from Purdue had children with autism engage in free-play sessions with typically-developing peers. They displayed more pro-social behaviors, such as smiling and laughing, when in a room with two guinea pigs than when the room contained toys rather than animals, reported the journal PLOS ONE.
3. Pets Bring Out The Zen In Kids
"Pets can make children more mindful," says Dr. Trachtenberg. "They live in the here-and-now, and living in the moment helps to decrease worry and stress." Living with a pet, a child can observe that they focus on one thing at a time, be it eating, playing, or cuddling, and that they get pleasure from the simplest joys: running in the yard; crawling in a paper bag; eating a favorite treat; or just getting a comforting scratch behind the ears.
4. Pets Increase Kids' Emotional Intelligence
As reported by MNN, studies indicate that children who own pets are more compassionate and empathetic than kids who don't. Why? Children quickly learn to think in terms of what the pet needs and likes: A fish has to be fed once or twice a day; a cat dislikes being picked up or touched roughly; a rat or hamster needs its cage cleaned often to avoid unpleasant odors. Being able to understand and prioritize others' needs above our own is a sign of emotional intelligence.
5. Pets Make Kids Less Lonely
"The companionship pets give combats loneliness," Dr. Trachtenberg tells Romper. This may especially be true for teens, who often feel the hurt of being shunned by friends. One study from Miami University asked pet-owning college students to write about a time when they felt rejected, then to write either about their pet, their best friend, or to draw a map of the campus. Students who wrote about their pet or friend felt far less negative about the rejection than teens who weren't thinking about the supportive animal or pal.
6. Pets Help Kids Behave Better
Although race and social class may play a part in this as well, anecdotal evidence points to the link between pet ownership and a lower incidence in behavior problems and disobedience in children, reported Psychology Today. Therapy animals such as dogs and horses have been used for years to help improve discipline and self-esteem and lower frustration levels and trauma-related symptoms in children with cognitive delays, autism, sensory processing issues, and other challenges, according to the Child Mind Institute.
Edit note: this post has been updated from an earlier version to state Dr. Jen Trachtenburg's correct title.
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