If you’re considering having a pet, you are certainly not alone. Around 70% of households have at least one pet, and 90% of those people view their pet as a member of the family, according to Dr. Rustin Moore, the dean of the College of Veterinary Medicine at The Ohio State University. In fact, children are more likely to grow up in a household with a pet than they are their biological father, says Dr. Moore. Children view pets as a member of the family, so to them, it’s not a pet but an extension of their family, he says.
Even when kids around ages 7 and 8 are surveyed, they rank their pets higher than their family members as providers of comfort and as confidantes, says Dr. Moore. So, while you might see having a pet as a lot of extra work, a child sees a pet as a potential best friend and family member. Not surprisingly, all of this extra love and affection results in a number of benefits. Here are nine ways your kids might benefit from pet ownership.
1. Stress reduction. Life can be stressful especially for kids and teens. With academic challenges, friendship struggles, and even pressures to succeed, kids are often dealing with a lot. But a pet can serve as a great stress reducer. Aside from the love and companionship they instinctively provide, there are physiological changes that take place within a child when they are petting or playing with their pet.
“Interacting with a pet has been shown to decrease the stress hormone cortisol and it increases the release of dopamine and oxytocin, which are anti-stress or feel-good hormones, particularly oxytocin,” says Dr. Moore. “We see this happen when holding or petting or even just being around a pet.”
2. Companionship. Pets often serve as built-in friends—except these furry friends are the best kind. They never do anything that hurts your child’s feelings nor do they exclude them or ignore them. Consequently, having a pet also can alleviate loneliness, especially for kids who struggle to make friends or do not have many children in their neighborhood.
“During this time of increased social and physical isolation for many around the globe, having a pet can also reduce feelings of loneliness and stress through close contact,” says Dr. Ann-Louise Lockhart. Pets not only provide companionship and friendship, but they also can become confidantes for kids who feel like they have no one else to talk to. In fact, it is especially common for younger children to talk through things or share secrets with their pets. When they have a pet, they feel like they always have someone they can talk to.
3. Empathy and compassion. Essentially, pets are dependent on humans to take care of them. They cannot make their own food or refill their water bowls. They even rely on others for exercise and entertainment. Because of their dependence on others to take care of them, this often sparks empathy and compassion in kids. Kids learn to look outside of themselves and consider what it might be like to be in someone else’s shoes, even if that someone is a pet. Parents can use pet ownership as a way to teach kids about the importance of respecting other forms of life, says Dr. Moore. They can talk about how their pet might feel when it is ignored or forgotten. Or, they might discuss how it feels to be hungry or cold. Getting a child to stop and think about another form of life is the first step in building empathy and compassion and pets are a great way to impart emotional intelligence.
4. Reading skills. Learning to read is no easy task, especially for kids who are reluctant readers. Once a parent or another adult asks a child to do their nightly reading, they are often filled with a sense of dread. They worry about everything from identifying letters and sounds to pronouncing words correctly. But if you ask a child to read to a pet, some of that stress and anxiety disappears, says Dr. Moore. Plus, kids get excited about reading to their pets because it doesn’t feel like work. They will show their pet the book’s pictures and talk about the story with them. Reading to their pet becomes something they look forward to.
“There are even programs where children will go and read to dogs or cats,” explains Dr. Moore. “And of course, the animals can’t understand what they’re saying, but the act of reading to them builds [the child’s] confidence and allows them to practice their skills.”
5. Unconditional love and acceptance. When a child grows up alongside a pet, there is no fear of judgment or rejection. Children know that their pet loves them no matter what. They don’t care what they are wearing, how they look, or how popular they are. They love them exactly as they are, which is an important part of pet ownership.
“Dogs are called man’s best friend for a reason,” says Kevin Doyle, MD, a pediatrician with Muskingum Valley Health Centers. “Pets provide a big opportunity for companionship and comfort and allow kids to break away from their dependencies on mom and dad for comfort. Animals provide another level of comfort and acceptance for them.”
6. Responsibility. Every parent knows that teaching kids how to be responsible is not an easy task. After all, it’s hard to get kids to remember to grab their lunch before school, make their bed, or even brush their teeth. But owning a pet is a great motivator for teaching responsibility because now kids have another living creature depending on them to take care of them.
“[Kids] learn responsibility, maturity, follow-through, and motivation [from owning a pet],” says Dr. Lockhart. “When a pet relies on their human to learn new tricks or to be fed, the child will be encouraged to give their pet what they need in order to ensure a happy dog and a peaceful home.” Kids will also learn that owning a pet is not something that can be taken lightly and that it is a big responsibility. In fact, kids will learn quickly that there are a lot of tasks that come with owning a pet, says Dr. Doyle.
7. Self-esteem and confidence. Owning a pet takes a lot of work. But if you allow your kids to participate in the chores that come with pet ownership, they will develop a sense of accomplishment after completing each task. Taking care of a pet also can help them build a sense of independence and autonomy especially when your kids are mature enough to handle those extra responsibilities on their own.
“When kids care for a dog—or any pet for that matter—they may feel a sense of pride in getting tasks accomplished,” says Dr. Doyle. “That helps build their self-confidence.” Additionally, the relationship they develop with their pet along the way helps them see themselves in a positive way and can even give them a sense of purpose. Their relationship with their pet builds their belief in themselves and helps hone their social and emotional skills as well.
8. Exercise. There’s no doubt about it: pets will get you out and about, especially if you opt for a dog or even a horse. So, if you are an active family or one that enjoys the outdoors, you might want to consider a pet that fits into that lifestyle. Pets also can help active kids burn off energy and get sedentary kids up and moving.
“Pets offer several benefits to children like high energy, which can help children burn off extra energy through play both indoors and outdoors,” says Dr. Lockhart. “Having a pet can also encourage the child to exercise outside through activities such as walks and hikes.”
9. Anxiety reduction. According to Dr. Moore, pets also can help ease symptoms of anxiety. For instance, researchers have found that when a child has been abused, having a dog there while talking to them about what happened can be calming and make it easier to share their experiences, he says. Likewise, attorneys will sometimes even have a dog in a courtroom because of the way it can calm and reassure kids and ultimately encourage them to share what happened. If your child struggles with anxiety, you may find that being around a pet—even one that is not their own—can significantly reduce their anxiety levels.
Stroking the fur or holding the animal has an overwhelmingly calming effect on kids. For this reason, there is a growing movement toward emotional support animals, Dr. Lockhart explains. “It has become clear that pet ownership impacts various mental health conditions such as anxiety, depression, PTSD, and autism,” she says. “Individuals who are struggling with medical conditions, such as seizures, tics, chronic pain, and other conditions have anecdotally reported benefits from pet ownership. I know this from my own practice working with clients who present with various chronic medical conditions.”
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