Why pets are good for you
WHEN SHE was around eighteen months of age, my baby daughter spoke her first word: she said ‘Gladstone’.
Before you jump to the conclusion that my child was some sort of prodigy in Irish political history, I should let you know the background: at the time, we had a black cat called Gladstone. He was a friendly creature, and a close companion of my daughter. He'd let her pet him, and he'd curl up sleeping beside her when she was playing. He was an important figure in her life. She probably spent more time with Gladstone than she spent with myself at that stage.
Every time he came in through the cat flap, my wife would say ‘Look - here's Gladstone’, and whenever she interacted with him, the word ‘Gladstone’ was repeated. Seen in this context, it's no surprise that she was so quick to learn to say his name. Gladstone went on to become a close friend of my daughter, until he passed away when she was twelve years of age. He had a strong impact on her developing personality.
The mental and physical health benefits of pets for adults are well-known: the routine of animal care provides daily stability and creates feelings of positive self-worth as well as providing a distraction from negative events in a person's life. There is plenty of evidence to show that dog and cat owners have better health than nonowners. Studies have demonstrated that dog owners make fewer visits to their doctors, and they recover more quickly after serious mental and physical illness. Pet ownership has been shown to improve negative moods as effectively as a human partner, lessening depressive episodes in single adults living on their own.
In institutional situations too, the positive effects of pets on adults have been clearly demonstrated. Constant companionship of an animal has been shown to reduce feelings of loneliness in elderly care home residents. The presence of a dog, cat or rabbit improves the mood of Alzheimer's patients, and patients in palliative care environments.
Research has focussed more recently on the positive impact of pet animals on the development of young children. Social scientists believe that animals appear more straightforward in their emotional displays than most humans. Children find it easy to understand them, and to relate to them, which leads to a strong bond between a young child and the pets in a household. This leads to improved self confidence and more positive moods, which in turn has a beneficial effect on the young person's relationships with people. It's been suggested that young pet owners have better social encounters and are more popular with their peers than non-pet owners.
Pets have a particularly useful positive effect when children go through instability at home, such as changing locations, moving schools or when parents separate from one another. The animals provide consistency and support at these times, lessening any negative impact on the child.
There are also positive effects that result from children being involved in the tasks needed for the daily care of family pets. Young people learn about responsibility and task accomplishment, with regular positive reinforcement from pets. A happy, tail-wagging dog says “thank you” in a very obvious way when taken for a walk or given dinner. A purring, friendly cat is clearly appreciative when fed or given attention such as petting or grooming. Children who learn these caring lessons go on to be adults who are better at essential life skills like parenting.
The value of animal companionship is now being formally recognised in the educational environment. Children have been shown to have a more positive attitude towards school and learning when a classroom dog is present. Three thousand volunteers across USA and Europe have been trained, with their dogs, to support children learning to read at school: the presence of a dog listener has been shown to reduce anxiety and lower blood pressure in children when reading aloud.
Animals are also able to play a positive role in the development of empathy in young people, perhaps because they are easy to relate to, compared to humans. This has a particular value in the management of developmental disorders such autism, where there are difficulties with social behaviour and communication. People with autism often have a lack of empathy towards others, as well as having a lack of skilled motor control (i.e. touching and holding objects in a delicate way).
Petting an animal improves fine motor skills: when children with autism are encouraged to gently pet and communicate with animals, their physical abilities improve, and they learn about empathy and relating to others at the same time. Children react well when they are asked to “offer comfort” to pets, or to “offer to share” with pets, and the lessons learned by doing this can then be extended to social interactions with people.
Irish Guide Dogs pioneered companion dogs for autistic children in Ireland, but there are now several other groups offering the same service: the benefits of these animals are multiple, not just for the child, but also for the parents and wider family.
We've always had pets in our household, primarily because we just like having them, but it's reassuring to know that the effect on our children has probably been positive. If you are a young parent, think about it. The bottom line is that pets are good for young people: if you don't have one, maybe this is the time?
Pets are very good for children