Animals in the house make for healthy children
Owning a pet can have many lasting benefits for children, as well as for the entire family unit. Learn how kids can benefit, and what to know before choosing a pet for your family.
Nugget was rehomed to the Arbo family two years ago, and although Australian shepherds are known for relentless energy, requiring physical and mental attention daily, Nugget knows how to settle when it comes time to unwind at home. Nine-year-old Kale Arbo’s mom, Jen Arbo, who also has a cat and four chickens, says, “There’s this very easygoing, comfortable relationship between the two of them, and I think that Nugget has become an important part of Kale’s idea of what our family is.” Aside from the lessons Kale’s learned from owning a pet, from the responsibility of feeding and teaching commands to dealing with the loss of their previous dog, growing up with pets can have many lasting benefits for children, and the family unit as a whole.
Dr. Christina Brown is a social-personality scientist and professor at Arcadia University. She has researched how pets can benefit human health and well-being.
According to Brown, pets don’t just provide companionship. They can also offer as much social support as a spouse, sibling, or close friend—and owners see them as much a part of the family as anyone else. In fact, it’s when owners feel close to their pets that they see the most benefit from having an animal in the house.
“Psychological research shows that the more forms of social support, the more relationships that we have, the better. Pets add to that,” says Brown. “If we are lacking something, if we have been rejected or feel lonely, studies show even thinking about our animals makes us feel better.”
It’s also worth noting that pets add to a household more than they take away. As Brown explains, “The critical thing is that pets don’t come at a cost to human relationships. They really are this extra source of support that is related to better well-being.”
Growing up with pets can contribute significantly to early childhood development. Studies show that children with pets in the household may demonstrate better impulse control and fewer symptoms of stress, depression, and anxiety. Pets may also reduce the likelihood of developing allergies.
According to Brown, the responsibility of caring for another family member can have lasting benefits, and giving a child the responsibility of taking care of certain aspects of a pet can be good for both the pet and the child.
Physical health can also be linked to mental health, and growing up with pets can contribute to both. For dogs especially, the responsibility of taking them for walks is a great incentive for going outside and moving around. “For mental health,” says Brown, “there’s a lot of research showing that physical activity has great benefit.”
Nugget isn’t the first dog owned by the Arbos. A few years ago, Kale went through the loss of their 16-year old Shiba Inu, Mooki, who was blind and deaf, and eventually suffered a debilitating stroke that left her unable to move her hind legs. Jen and her husband decided to include Kale in the process of putting Mooki down, where Kale learned about euthanasia and the role it can play in responsible pet ownership.
When the Arbos decided to get another dog, Kale needed to adjust to owning a new pet, one who suddenly needed more attention and exercise. “It was a real life-changer to recognize that Nugget was a different kind of dog,” says Jen. Now it’s common to see Kale talking to Nugget about video games or narrating play-by-plays of what the cat’s up to, and Nugget is happy to be involved. “Nugget’s not going to tell him to be quiet,” says Jen.
In fact, speaking with pets, says Brown, is a very good thing, as it shows recognition that the animal has its own mind and its own free will. “Sometimes we might be embarrassed or we might think we’re being ridiculous if we talk to our animals, but that very thing, that humanlike connection with an animal, is what makes animals benefit us,” says Brown.
Brown is also a proponent of animal rights. She notes, “We talk about what animals do for people, but it’s important that we talk about what people do for their animals.
“Pets can benefit us, but we have to give them something too. We can’t just bring them into our lives and expect they’ll make us better. We need to actually care for them,” says Brown.
In other words, owning a pet comes with its own commitments and responsibilities, which means offering proper care and training. It’s likely the first lesson to be learned by both parents and children alike.
One of the most common pets for families, dogs offer great companionship—though some breeds may be unsuitable for children. Child-friendly breeds include Labrador retrievers, golden retrievers, pugs, and cocker spaniels.
A popular choice for many households (especially where space is limited), cats require less attention than dogs, but still need regular care. Abyssinians, American shorthairs, and Burmese cats typically have friendly temperaments suited for children.
These can be great starter pets for children, helping them get accustomed to routines and providing care.
Adopting a pet is a big commitment. Before bringing an animal into the home, ask yourself—and your family members—the following.
Very large dogs should be avoided around very small children, as they can knock children over, especially toddlers learning to walk.
Rottweilers, Doberman pinschers, and even some small dogs, such as Jack Russell terriers, can be aggressive around children.
Many reptiles are prone to carrying salmonella, which young children may be more susceptible to.