THE POWER OF PETS
Furry friends have many positive effects on a child’s development
Children raised with pets are confident, more compassionate and less likely to become asthmatic – that’s what the research says. A Sydney animal behaviourist says all this is true and more, and that every family should have a pet.
“Even a goldfish or a hermit crab – kids get so much from pets because they can create a special relationship with them,” Dr Joanne Righetti says.
“Children develop a respect for their pets and this helps prepare them for later life. The child learns about the responsibilities of caring for another living creature – even if they don’t always follow through with their tasks.”
A kid’s best friend
Many adults remember their own special relationship with a family pet who may have stopped them feeling scared during a storm, who listened to them when all their friends wouldn’t or made them feel better when they were sad.
This effect pets have on kids has been confirmed by several studies. The Center for the HumanAnimal Bond at Purdue University in the US found that almost 70 per cent of children confided in their pets because they knew their furry or feathery best friends wouldn’t betray their secrets.
“Pets give kids unconditional love,” Dr Righetti says. “When school friends stop talking to you, you know your pet still loves you. It teaches children trust and that if you nurture a relationship you can get so much out of it.”
Research conducted at Ohio State University found university students who had a pet were less stressed, lonely and depressed than those who did not.
“Children with pets are popular with their peers,” Dr Righetti says. “The antics of a pet can make good topics of conversation and children even learn to read body language from watching pets.”
Pets reduce asthma
A few studies have come out in recent years suggesting that early exposure to cats or dogs may prevent the development of allergies and asthma.
A study into 12-month-old babies found that if a dog lived in the home, infants were about 40 per cent less likely to show signs of pet allergies. They were also less likely to have eczema, a common allergic skin condition.
In addition, they had higher levels of some immune system chemicals – a sign of stronger immune system activation.
“Dogs are dirty and this suggests that babies who have greater exposure to dirt and allergens have a stronger immune system,” said Dr James Gern, in the Journal Of Allergy And Clinical Immunology.
However, this research is still controversial. Many experts say more research is needed.
What’s best for families
There are lots of options for people who don’t have the time, space or lifestyle for cats or dogs. Fish, budgies, reptiles and mice are fairly easy to look after.
“But it’s important the primary caregiver – and that will never be the child, no matter what they promise – makes the final decision on what pet you get,” Dr Righetti says. “A pet requires commitment.”
It’s also vital that children are taught pet safety – to keep both animal and child safe and healthy. For families not ready for a pet, many animal shelters welcome visits from the public to help walk, bathe and groom dogs.
This is a great opportunity to socialise kids with animals and do a good deed. For information, start with the Animal Welfare League or RSPCA in your state. + Learn how to introduce children to animals at home in Fiona Baker’s latest article at bodyandsoul.com.au