Why Kids Need Pets.
Mothers have been hearing conflicting opinions on whether pets should stay when a
baby comes. Well-meaning older folk relate horror stories about ferocious dogs mauling a young child,
or kids with asthma attacks triggered by cat hairs. Yet they also see heartwarming videos and breathtaking
pictures of the bond between children and their pets. So which is it?
Well, studies show that there are more benefits for a child’s well-being – emotional, cognitive, social,
and physical – to having pets than not. Naturally, applying some common sense will help to ensure
that you and your child reap only the good out of the relationship with your pets.
Lower Allergy Risks
Wait, aren’t pet allergies one of the most common triggers of asthma? Well, yes, but according to a study
by paediatrician and Chief of the Allergy-Immunology Section of the Medical College of Georgia, Dr Dennis
Ownby, having multiple pets actually decreases a child’s risk of developing common allergies. He found |
that children who were exposed to two or more dogs or cats as babies were less than half as likely to be
reactive to both indoor and outdoor allergens as kids who had no pets in the home.
Petrina Lau, owner of pet shop, Pets Love, and mother of three-year-old Gareth, agrees. She says, “When my
son was born, I faced pressure from both sides of the family to give up my dogs and cats. I chose to subscribe
to the opposing theory that exposure to the allergens helps build immunity. So far, the theory has proven true
and Gareth is a very healthy little boy.”
Increasing Physical Activity
Another physical benefit is more obvious – getting a good workout! For older children and adults, this may be
found in taking Fido for a daily walk or having a game of Frisbee. For the younger ones, this could involve a
toddler chasing Snowball around the nursery or a six-month-old learning to turn onto his belly so that he
can see Cottontail better.
Cai Suqi, 29-year-old marketing manager and mother of a 13-month-old boy, is convinced that “the cats
motivated Shayne to crawl sooner, because he was always looking at them when they were walking, running
or jumping up and down. It’s like he couldn’t wait to be a part of their pack and indeed when he started
crawling, he started going after them!”
Providing Comfort and Building Trust
Pets also provide an infinite source of comfort, whether it be in offering a furry cuddle or simply by being
close by. Professor Emerita of Developmental Studies at Purdue University, Indiana, and author of Why
the Wild Things Are: Animals in the Lives of Children, Dr Gail F. Melson, asked a group of five-year-old
pet owners what they did when they felt sad, angry, afraid or had a secret. More than 40 per cent
spontaneously mentioned turning to their pets.
“Kids who get support from their animal companions were rated by their parents as less anxious and
withdrawn,” she says. Having an ever-present dog, cat or even fish, can provide a sense of security and even
help ease separation anxiety in kids with working parents.
In addition, positive relationships with pets can aid in the development of trusting relationships with others.
Children often talk to pets like they talk to a favourite toy. The concept is simple – pets don’t judge and
any secret is safe with them!
Instilling Self-Esteem and Self-Confidence
Perhaps one of the greatest gifts a pet can give to a child is a sense of self-worth. From very early on, children
go through life being constantly evaluated by parents, teachers, and peers, from being able to recognise
their own eyes and toes, to academic, athletic and even artistic achievements later on in school. Animals
have no such expectations. Complete acceptance from them instils confidence in even the most insecure child.
What’s more, pets also help shy children open up further, simply by giving them something to talk about in
company and a shared interest with their peers. So says Dr Mary Renck Jalongo, professor of Professional
Studies in Education at the Indiana University of Pennsylvania and author of The World of Children and
Their Companion Animals. When she asked a group of children what advice they would give less popular
kids, the top answer was “Get a pet!”
Helping with Learning Disabilities
One of the most under-rated yet valuable benefits a pet can provide a child is in communicating with non-verbal
cues. For everyone else, this means learning essential communication skills which can be applied to human
interaction, as children learn to decipher the subtleties of body language. But for children with learning
impediments such as Autism and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), this may be a godsend.
Canine behaviourist John Richardson – The Dog Whisperer, quotes a touching example of how an
adequately-trained dog helped a child with Autism improve her social skills. “I was contacted by Mrs Summer, a
mother whose four-year-old daughter, Rose, was Autistic and was having extreme difficulty in communicating
with people. Mrs Summer had adopted a young Cocker Spaniel named ‘Jock’, but the dog needed training, and I
had been asked to help.
“On my first visit, Rose was very shy and when I started to speak to her about her doggie, she ran out of the room.
On my second session, Rose stayed in the room and was quite calm, and by the third session (just six weeks later),
she couldn’t stop talking about her lovely dog and the activities she wanted to do with Jock. I had a call from Mrs
Summer some months later, thanking me for the help. She said Rose’s communication skills had improved
immensely since Jock had come into their lives.”
Apart from teaching communication, pets can also help children with learning disabilities learn how to regulate stress
and calm themselves. This allows overly aggressive kids or those with ADHD to slow down and stay attentive. Playing
with a pet is also an excellent way to work off excess energy, leading to a better night’s rest.
Teaching Compassion and a Nurturing Nature
Having pets teaches compassion, empathy, affection, respect and loyalty, and these are definitely values we want our
kids to grow up with. “I think Snowball looks sad. Why is Snowball sad?” may be something you hear from the lips of
a three-year-old. Children naturally become curious about how their pets may be feeling and this curiosity will naturally
extend itself to allow for greater engagement with others around them.
The next step will be learning how to take care of another living being, because a child will take pleasure and pride in
keeping the pet healthy and happy. On the flip side, pets even teach children how to take care of themselves. Once they
realise why it is important to brush Fido’s teeth regularly, they will naturally understand why they have to keep their own
teeth clean! Best of all, this will result in building a sense of responsibility and accomplishment.
Petrina sums this up succinctly: “Having pets in a family teaches a child to be responsible, caring and sensitive to the
feelings of others. Every family sets their own learning environment. I wouldn’t say there are any disadvantages to not
having a pet; rather, it is an experience lost. The feeling of having a best friend who loves you unconditionally is difficult
Providing Lessons on Life Skills
Rebecca Reynolds Weil, occupational therapist and executive director of The Nature Connection, Inc, formally known as
the Animals As Intermediaries programme, says that by interacting with animals, “Children learn how the world and living
things are interconnected.”
Pets provide a platform where children can learn lessons about life, from reproduction and birth to illnesses and death.
They learn how to cope with joy and bereavement, something that will stand them in good stead the rest of their lives.
At the end of the day, be it moments spent playing with Fido, petting Snowball, talking to Polly or watching Goldie swim
around, more and more experts and parents agree that no matter what kind of pet you have completing your family circle,
they are good for your overall health and well-being.
Natural mood enhancers, their ability to give unconditional love and unwavering kindness helps to reduce stress levels and
increase our serotonin production. And that can only be good for our children as well.