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growing up with pets

From social development to stress relief, pets and well-being go paw-in-hand.

Those lucky enough to have had a childhood pet may remember the magical relationship they shared. Whether your cat was your partner in crime, or your dog accompanied you on some epic woodland adventures, family pets can quickly become a child’s best friend. And as children endlessly enjoy bonding, talking and playing with their pets, they’re developing essential life skills with proven health and social benefits.

Mental wellbeing

From reducing anxiety and stress to developing children’s social behaviours, there have been a number of studies into the positive effects of pet ownership on children’s mental health. Owning a dog has been linked to decreased childhood anxiety[1] where it is believed their loyalty and unconditional love serve as an opportunity for children to confide in them without judgement, helping them to release stress. Pets also offer children an opportunity to care for, and nurture a living being to create their unique bond. This encourages empathy – a characteristic we all need in life to develop meaningful relationships. Of course, inviting your classmates over to meet your amazing cat or dog at home, is a sure fire way to make friends too.

Studies have demonstrated how pet ownership encourages healthy social development, with measurable benefits in social competence, social networks, social interaction, social communication, empathy and social play behaviour. These benefits are linked to the relationship between childhood pet ownership and improved self-esteem and reduced loneliness[2].

Physical health

Did you know that children who have a household pet are less likely to develop allergies and food intolerances?[3][4][5] This is likely due to the hygiene hypothesis that an environment which is ‘too clean’ in early childhood leads to a ‘misdirection’ of the immune system. Essentially, this means a reaction to everyday substances like dust mites, pollen or certain food types.

A study from Finland found that having a dog in the household during the first year of life has a protective effect against respiratory tract and ear infections and also reduces the average number of antibiotic courses usually needed during early childhood[2]. Cats offer similar benefits, but to a lesser degree.

Growing old with pets

Pet ownership is less common in older age. However, regular contact with pets is associated with better cognitive ability compared to people of the same age who have no contact with them[6].

Owning a pet has also been linked to improved responses to other health conditions. An example includes a study of over 460 older adults who’d had a heart attack. A trend showed that those who owned pets were more likely to survive. This improved survival rate may be linked to the reduction in blood pressure caused by being around pets, or the increased fitness levels created by regular dog walking[2]. Some may even believe it could be linked to a sense of responsibility toward the pet and therefore a stronger will to survive.

Pets provide a huge source of fun and love. And more than that, they’re benefitting our children, families and elderly people – physically, mentally and emotionally. The best part is they do it all without even trying. We think that’s pretty magic – and why we say a little ‘thank you’ every now and again.

Interested in this subject?

You may like to read Clare Balding’s book, ‘My Animals and Other Family’ reflecting on how her life was shaped by the animals she grew up with.

References

[1]  Companion Animals and Child/Adolescent Development: A Systematic Review of the Evidence. Purewal R, Christley R, Kordas K, et al. Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2017;14(3):234.

[2] Pet Dogs and Children’s Health: Opportunities for Chronic Disease Prevention? Gadomski, Anne M et al.  Preventing chronic disease vol. 12 E205 2015

[3] Early Exposure to Dogs and Farm Animals and the Risk of Childhood Asthma. Fall T, Lundholm C, Örtqvist AK, et al. JAMA Pediatr. 2015;169(11)

[4] Respiratory Tract Illnesses During the First Year of Life: Effect of Dog and Cat Contacts. Eija Bergroth, Sami Remes, Juha Pekkanen, Timo Kauppila, Gisela Büchele, Leea Keski-Nisula. Pediatrics Jul 2012, peds.2011-2825

[5] Infant gut microbiota and food sensitization: Associations in the first year of life. Azad, M.B.; Konya, T.; Guttman, D.S.; Field, C.J.; Sears, M.R.; HayGlass, K.T.; Mandhane, P.J.; Turvey, S.E.; Subbarao, P.; Becker, A.B.; et al.. Clin. Exp. Allergy 2015, 45, 632–643

[6] Pet Ownership Patterns and Successful Aging Outcomes in Community Dwelling Older Adults. Friedmann E, Gee NR, Simonsick EM, et al. Front Vet Sci. 2020;7:293.