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Do you consider your furry, feathered or scaly friends as family pets or part of the family? Either way, having pets has numerous benefits for your children.

The bond between humans and animals is a special one. Sharing your home with family pets provides health and psychological benefits for the entire family. And, children who grow up with family pets may even have higher levels of self-esteem and confidence.

It’s not difficult to tell the difference between children who have been exposed to animals and those who haven’t. When bowled over by an enthusiastic Labrador, a child with a dog in the family will nonchalantly get up and dust himself off.  They may also 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.

Why family pets?

Well, one sound 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 age 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. This exposure may then change the way the child’s immune system responds to other allergens.

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. It also has a positive effect on their empathy levels,” she says. Also, pet ownership strengthens family bonds as they are often the focus of group activities.

Animal Nurture

Nurturing isn’t a quality that suddenly appears in adulthood. People need a way to practise being caregivers when they’re young. 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, resulting in more efficient non-verbal communication.

Animals are increasingly used to help children with learning disabilities such as reading problems, says Le Roux. “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. 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.

Also, there is a link between pet ownership and children’s 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. Of course, 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.

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. Never leave small children and dogs unattended, some dogs may bite or snarl.


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.

If you are thinking of getting a family pet, please consider adopting rather than buying.