I remember having a variety of pets as a child—specifically, gerbils, cats and one dog. In retrospect, having the gerbils and a cat in the same house was a mistake (it didn’t end well for the gerbil). But otherwise, having pets was a great experience for my two brothers and me.
An estimated 90 percent of children live with a pet at some time in their childhood. Fortunately for parents, pets come in a variety of sizes and levels of needs, from fish and snakes to cats and dogs. But all pets come at a cost—particularly in financial, emotional and time commitments.
If you’ve been thinking about getting a pet for your kids, but are wondering if it will be worth the effort, you may be surprised to discover that there are many benefits these furry, or slimy, friends bring to your children beyond just being cute.
1. Avert Allergies
It may sound counter intuitive, but there is science behind this. Studies show that young children who have pets in the home are less likely to develop pet allergies than those raised without animals around. This is especially true if the pets are in the home while the children are still babies. WebMD reports, “…researchers found that young adults who had a dog or cat at home as infants were only about half as likely to develop a significant amount of antibodies to dog or cat allergens, a process called allergic sensitization.”
Even more surprisingly, pets in the home can help prevent other allergies as well. According to a study by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), children who live in a home with multiple dogs or cats during their first year are not as likely to have various other allergies. “The striking finding here is that high pet exposure early in life appears to protect against not only pet allergy but also other types of common allergies,” explained Marshall Plaut, M.D., chief of the allergic mechanisms section at NIAID, “such as allergy to dust mites, ragweed, and grass.”
2. Curtail Colds
Apparently the health benefits go even further than preventing allergies. A 2012 study by the American Academy of Pediatrics concluded that when babies have contact with animals, especially dogs, they are “healthier” and have “fewer respiratory tract symptoms” and infections. “Our findings support the theory that during the first year of life, animal contacts are important, possibly leading to better resistance to infectious respiratory illnesses during childhood.” It appears that the pet dander and the microbes that outdoor pets can carry into the house help strengthen a baby’s immune system, preparing them for attacks from common germs.
3. Improve Social Skills
Pets offer a kind of unconditional love that is hard to find in other relationships. And when kids learn to feel that wholehearted love from their dog or cat, they feel freer to give love back. Such openness will help them in social interactions with their friends. Experts at North Shore Pediatric Therapy cite a study indicating that children with pets tend to be more social and sensitive to others than those without a cat or dog in the home. “Research speculates that companionship with a pet not only provides gratification for the child,” says Professional Counselor Marnie Ehrenberg, “but it also may help them create better relationships with other people.” As an added benefit, having a pet also increases a child’s awareness of the needs and feelings of animals, leading them to be compassionate adults as well.
4. Encourage Learning
Another surprise from the researchers, pets may help your child learn! Yet another study found that kids had lower stress levels and were more enthusiastic about reading to a dog rather than a peer or an adult. Encouraging a child to read to their cat, dog or turtle may be a good way to get them excited about reading and help them be less nervous about reading aloud. Kids also learn the cycle of life by watching pets grow from puppies and kittens to adult animals, and they eventually learn the tougher lessons of sickness and death that are all a part of life.
5. Bring Comfort
Being a kid is tough. Children and teens suffer from stress resulting from school pressures, bullying, image issues and other problems. Coming home to the love and acceptance of a pet can be just the medicine for a bruised ego or feelings of loneliness. Dogs are often used as therapy for traumatized children or for those with emotional issues, but the same benefits apply to all kids. “They’re kind of like counselors with fur,” says Tim Hetzner, who runs K9 Comfort Dogs. “They have excellent listening skills, and they demonstrate unconditional love. They don’t judge you or talk back.” Having an animal to love can help kids get through the tougher times of their lives.
6. Learn Leadership
Having a pet means taking responsibility for its care. No matter the type of pet, they all need continual care and feeding. Kids can share in these daily responsibilities and learn the importance of caring for a living creature. The fact that these daily chores cannot be missed teaches children lessons in discipline and reliability. Of course, the full burden of caring for a pet does rest on the adults in the home, who must ensure the animals are properly cared for. But sharing the responsibility for a pet builds a child’s self-esteem and leadership skills. Instead of only being dependent on others, kids can learn a new role of caring for something that is dependent on them. And older children with dogs can take on the task of walking him and enjoy the added benefit of fresh air and exercise!
Choosing to bring a pet into your home is a big decision and one that should be thought through carefully as it involves a long-term commitment in time and resources. But if you’re wondering what the effect of a having a pet will be on your kids, rest assured those cats, dogs, hamsters and turtles all bring with them plenty of benefits!