Why pets are good for you

Bray People - - FRONT PAGE - Pete WED­DER­BURN THE AN­I­MAL DOC­TOR

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

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