Yes, owning a little furry friend teaches children responsibility. But the positive influence may extend much further.
Researchers have known for years that pets improve health in seniors by lowering stress and improving fitness. But the benefit to children is only just being studied. It turns out pets can have a positive impact on emotional and social health, as well as improve cognitive abilities. “There is now enough evidence that learning to care for something helps nurture a child’s ability to empathize,” says Lynne Jackson, an associate professor of psychology at King’s University College at the University of Western Ontario in London. Lynne herself owns dogs, cats and horses.
Socially, pets can provide a safe base for children. When a child learns that a caregiver is consistently there, that person become a safe haven, says Lynne. The same goes for pets. When they are always there for a child, they become another pillar. “That sense of attachment influences a person’s sense of lovability,” she says. There is also a suggestion that children who have been through trauma can experience healing from a pet’s love.
In very young children, pets can provide an opportunity for children to learn how to control their emotional peaks and valleys. “Animals have a constant interplay between excitement and calm. They’ll zoom around the house and children have to learn sometimes to moderate their own enthusiasm.” Lynne speculates that when children see how their own energy levels are reflected in their animals, it may promote self-control.
Pets are a 24-7 learning tool. From birth, children’s cognitive abilities are developing as they learn to reason, categorize and form memories. “Pets have different textures, make different sounds and have unpredictable movements,” says Lynne. “There is evidence that even babies are attuned to life and will spend more time gazing at a live animal over a stuffed animal.”
British researcher June McNicholas studied a group of school children and found that those who owned pets actually lost fewer days of school due to illness. The pet owners had higher levels of the antibody immunoglobulin A, which indicates immune system strength.
The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry notes:
- positive pet relationships build self-esteem and self-confidence and trust in others
- pets can help develop non-verbal communication skills
- they can provide a connection to nature
Published June 2010