How Family Pets Can Benefit Your Children

Pet ownership is a good thing for your children. A bit of animal interaction can have some interesting and far-reaching benefits
By Sasha Cuff

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You can always tell the difference between children who have been exposed to animals and those who haven’t. A child with a dog in the family will nonchalantly get up and dust himself off after being bowled over by an enthusiastic Labrador, or may swipe absentmindedly at the large lickings of a Great Dane. Conversely, a child raised in an animal-free home is likely to squeal at the sight of a tiny Chihuahua and attempt to scale the legs of the nearest adult.
How important is it to share the family home with a furry, feathered or even scaly friend?
Pet Benefits
Well, one sound and solid first reason is that pet ownership decreases a child’s risk of developing certain allergies. A study by Dennis Ownby, MD, paediatrician and head of the allergy and immunology department at the Medical College of Georgia, US, tracked a group of 474 babies from birth to the age of seven. It emerged that the children who were exposed to dogs or cats as babies were less than half as likely to develop common allergies such as asthma. The theory is that when a child comes into contact with an animal, it transfers bacteria to the child and this exposure may then change the way the child’s immune system responds to other allergens.
Moving away from the microscope, other psychological benefits of animal interaction are being harnessed by therapists in a variety of ways.
Pets as Therapy, South Africa (PAT) organises therapeutic visits to hospitals, hospices, retirement homes, special-needs schools and other facilities by trained, voluntary pet owners. PAT’s objective is to provide company, support, stress relief and stimulation to people in need. PAT member Marieanna le Roux is a researcher at the University of Stellenbosch’s department of psychology and is currently investigating the effects of companion dogs on children.
“Research has shown that the presence of an animal in a child’s life can improve a child’s self-concept and have a positive effect on their empathy levels,” she says.
Animal Nurture
Nurturing isn’t a quality that suddenly appears in adulthood. People need a way to practise being caregivers when they’re young and interaction with an animal is an excellent way of developing this. A child has to put himself in the non-verbal pet’s position and try to imagine how the pet feels. This creates more awareness of the needs and feelings of others and results in more efficient non-verbal communication.
Marieanna explains that animals are increasingly used to help children with learning disabilities such as reading problems. “The presence of a calm, non-judgemental dog helps children to relax while reading out loud,” she explains.
Special-needs children are known to respond effectively to pet therapy and interaction with an animal is seen to have a positive impact on their quality of life, changes their behaviour and improves their ability to participate in therapy. Similarly, hospitalised children undergoing treatment or awaiting operations are distracted, entertained and relaxed by a visiting dog or cat.
In addition to this interaction there is a link between pet ownership and children having improved school attendance rates. Children are also more likely to become involved in sports, extramural activities and chores.
Ultimate Responsibility Rests With You
Owning an animal is a big responsibility, which will ultimately be yours – and smaller pets do not mean less upkeep. I gave in to a moment of weakness and bought my daughter a guinea pig, never having owned one before. Little did I know that the cute-looking, long-haired variety we selected requires a weekly wash and blow-dry and, in spite of assurances from my daughter to help look after ‘Percy’, it is yours truly who finds herself scrubbing and disinfecting his cage. Opting for something less high maintenance such as a goldfish will probably enthral your child for about as long as its own seven-second attention span. The simple fact is, the less engaging the animal, the less likely a child is to bond with it.
How a pet encourages the emotional development of a child also depends on the quality of home life, so while pets bolster self-esteem, the effect is greatly enhanced by children with supportive parents. Pet ownership strengthens family bonds as they are often the focus of group activities.
Finding the Perfect Pet
Pros: “Man’s best friend” offers endless loyalty and affection and more walks than you’d ever want, so there are fitness advantages as well.
Cons: Dogs require lots of care and attention. Some may bite, so should never be left unattended with small children.
Pros: Soft, warm and cuddly, cats are relatively independent and offer additional pest-control benefits.
Cons: They can be aloof and may scratch or scarper if played with too boisterously.
The Humble Goldfish
Pros: A popular “starter pet,” the hardy goldfish can live up to several years in cold water.
Cons: It is not the most exciting pet and improper maintenance leads to premature floating and subsequent toilet-flushing.
Pros: They may trash cages as fast as rock stars trash hotel rooms, but they are intelligent and sociable companions.
Cons: Birds live a long time and need attention and dedication. They don’t respond well to change or isolation.
Pros: Cute, compact and clever, “pocket pets” require some care, such as daily handling, but no more than a child can manage with adult supervision. 
Cons: If mishandled, they deliver a nasty nip and are prone to being smelly if their bedding is not changed on a regular basis.


Anonymous wrote 5 years 14 weeks ago

We just adopted a 2-year-old Yorkshire Terrier who is playful, loveable and fully house-trained (yay!) especially for our 7-year-old foster child who is involved with social workers and attorneys etc in our difficult adoption case. He was having nightmares almost every night and crawling into our bed in the middle of the night - every night. Since the dog joined our household, our little boy's nightmares have lessened considerably and he has even stayed in his own bed (for most nights). He continuously says, "I just love Teddy".

admin wrote 5 years 14 weeks ago

That's great news. Thanks for sharing that with us.

JeruG wrote 8 years 4 weeks ago

Having over 200 pets ourselves and two girls who suffer from allergies, I have to agree with your article. The allergies have only gotten better over the years :)

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