Are Cats and Dogs Good for Your Child’s Health?
Want to stave off allergies in your kids? Get a pet! Multiple studies have found that the risk of common allergies is significantly reduced in children who grow up with dogs and cats in their home. A study funded by the National Institutes of Health followed children from birth to age 7 and found that their risk of suffering from allergies can be reduced by up to 50 percent in pet-owning households. Also, these children had overall lower antibody levels and far fewer positive skin test reactions to cat, dog, dust mite, ragweed, and grass allergens.
How is it possible that your hairy and sometimes stinky pet could actually be keeping your child healthy? Dr. Dennis Ownby, chief of the Medical College of Georgia Section of Allergy and Immunology, says, “What happens when kids play with cats or dogs? The animals lick them. The lick is transferring a lot of Gram-negative bacteria and that may be changing the way the child’s immune system responds in a way that helps protect against allergies.”
Researchers at Warwick University in Coventry, UK, found that having a cat or dog exposed children to more infections early in life. This alone may sound like a deterrent from buying your child her first pet. However, the researchers concluded that this exposure boosted their immune systems and kept the pet-owning children healthier – which meant that those children with pets attended school more often than their peers with no pets. (And, presumably, parents missed less work staying home to care for their sick children.) Pet-owning children were found to attend an extra nine days of school over the course of the year as compared to those without pets. These results were most pronounced in children 5 to 8 years of age.
In addition to physical health benefits, pet ownership for children offers a multitude of positive cognitive and emotional experiences. Important life lessons can result from owning a pet – how much fun a playmate can be, how to share mom and dad’s attention with a new sibling, and how to deal with the loss of a family member. Pet ownership can also help kids develop discipline and responsibility. Children can learn how and when to feed their pet, take their pet outside, clean their pet, or even take their pet to the vet. Children also gain a sense of independence through being a pet owner. Owning a pet, be it a dog, hamster, fish, or parrot, can help position them to become mature and responsible adults.
Pets can be first friends for young children and provide a strong level of camaraderie and mutual respect. Positive relationships with pets lead to the development of trusting and respectful relationships with other humans. The development of nonverbal communication, compassion, and empathy result from pet ownership. A child who realizes that another creature’s survival depends on him builds a sense of awareness, belonging, and self-esteem.
Pets can be the catalyst for fun family-building activities, such as taking the dog for a walk or to a park, grooming the cat, going to the pet supply store together, etc. Most of all, caring for a pet teaches children to have respect for all living things, no matter the species.
A special note for parents of children with asthma
If your child is allergic to pets or pet dander and that exposure has been identified as an existing asthma trigger, you should, of course, follow the advice of your pediatrician. Some children with asthma, however, are not allergic to animals and are able to coexist with their pets. There is no one answer about whether or not children with asthma can or should live with pets.
Pediatric allergist Lisa Kobrynski, MD, MPH, assistant professor of pediatrics at Atlanta’s Emory University, says that the pet discussion is always a hard one for families of children with asthma. Kobrynski suggests that keeping pets outside might be a solution. Some families try frequent washing of pets – at least three times each week – but that wouldn’t work if the pet allergen is coming from the pet’s saliva. Kobrynski says, to be on the safe side, children with asthma can be given a skin or blood test to see exactly which triggers are most important to avoid.
It is always best to research and make an informed decision when choosing to bring a pet into your family. Your local library or bookstore is filled with books about children and pets. Here are just a few:
- Your Baby and Bowser, by Stephen C. Rafe. A book that illustrates the importance of intentional inclusion when a new baby or pet are brought together for the first time in a family; tips for making a smooth transition and for ensuring everyone will coexist in harmony.
- Allergic to Pets? The Breakthrough Guide to Living with the Animals You Love, by Shirlee Kalstone. Renowned pet expert Shirlee Kalstone provides effective advice for allergy sufferers on how to cohabitate with your pet. A terrific resource for animal-loving allergy sufferers everywhere.
- Your Child’s Dog: How to Help Your Kids Care for Their Pets, by Andrea McHugh. How to involve children in training, raising, and caring for a pet dog.
- Are You the Pet for Me? Choosing the Right Pet for Your Family, by Mary Jane Checchi. A great resource about the basics of what pet ownership can do for your family, including the opportunity for kids to learn responsibility and experience the rewards of animal companionship, as well as determining what is the best kind of pet for your child and your family.
- Living with Kids and Dogs…Without Losing Your Mind, by Colleen Pelar. Each chapter of this book is devoted to each stage of a child’s life; includes parental pointers for setting their family up for success while raising kids and dogs together.
- Totally Fun Things to Do with Your Dog, by Maxine Rock. Ideas for family activities with your favorite four-legged friend!