Pets Rx: How a Furry Companion Can Help Protect Kids Against Stress

Dog ready for a walk

Pets Rx: How a Furry Companion Can Help Protect Kids Against Stress

More than 163 million cats and dogs currently make their homes in backyards and living rooms across America. That adds up to a lot of dug-up flower beds, vet bills, and ruined upholstery. It also adds up to a lot of happiness.

To begin with, furry companions can promote mental health and resilience in children across the board, according to a 2015 study published in the Journal of the American Board of Family Medicine (JABFM).

Not only do children with pets demonstrate more empathy, self-esteem, and problem-solving, the researchers found, they showed greater trust, community feeling, sense of safety and self-confidence. In addition, “pets provide comfort and act as confidants” for children, according to the authors.

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For youngsters suffering from Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs), a pet can help support healing from trauma by boosting their sense of safety, connection and resilience.

Children and adults suffering from trauma “may develop connections to animals that provide emotional support and a sense of protection” during times when their nervous system is on high alert, writes Ricky Greenwald, PsyD,  on the website of the Trauma Institute and Child Trauma Institute in Northampton, Massachusetts. Animals “help build up resilience in the face of adversity,” he concluded.

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To Cameron Woo, editor of the well-regarded dog magazine The Bark, this all makes good sense. “Especially when there’s an only child, a dog can really round out a family and serve as sort of a canine brother or sister,” he said. “Dogs are such a calming influence. Often a dog is a child’s first responsibility — feeding him, taking him on walks, teaching him tricks, brushing him or whatever is age-appropriate — this can definitely build a child’s self-confidence. Having a great companion who goes everywhere with you and is loyal, loving and non-judgmental can also teach a child a lot about healthy relationships.”

For children suffering the aftermath of trauma or adverse childhood experiences (ACEs), dogs may help lower their stress: Studies have linked pets to reduced blood pressure in both children and adults. In one experiment, children were found to have lower blood pressure “in the mere presence of a dog, even though they didn’t interact with the animal,” wrote a researcher in an article from the Western Journal of Medicine.

“Stroking or petting an animal appears to lower both blood pressure and pulse rate in both the human who is petting and the animal being petted,” the authors reported.

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One way pets may relieve stress and anxiety in children (and adults) is by triggering the activation of the so-called “love” hormone oxytocin, according to the study published by the JABFM. Its effects include lowered anxiety levels and reduced stress, blood pressure, and symptoms of depression, along with increased social interaction, self-confidence, and learning, the researchers noted. According to the journal, “Oxytocin concentrations in dog owners increase significantly when their pets gaze at them.” 

Of course, the wrong pet could end up becoming the exact opposite of a stress reliever. Before bringing home an animal, choose carefully and consider how much attention, space, and time you can give to a new companion. And remember, babies, toddlers, and young children should not be left alone with a dog, even a small one, and non-aggressive breeds are a safer choice for you and your neighbors. 

If you choose well, you’ll have a friend for life — and you and the kids don’t need a clean bill of health to see the value in that.

–A portion of this piece was adapted from LimeHealth with permission.

References

Allen K et al. Cardiovascular reactivity and the presence of pets, friends, and spouses: The truth about cats and dogs. Psychosomatic Medicine, 64:727-739.

American Veterinary Medical Association. Pets, spouses compete for the title of best stress relievers: Pets win.

Dwiwardani, C., Hill, P. C., Bollinger, R. A., Marks, L. E., Steele, J. A., Doolin, H. N., … & Davis, D. E. (2014). Virtues develop from a secure base: Attachment and resilience as predictors of humility, gratitude, and forgiveness. Journal of Psychology & Theology, 42, 83-90.

Fitzgerald, Faith T, MD. The Therapeutic Value of Pets. Western Journal of Medicine,1440(1):103-5.

Hudgson, K., et al. Pets’ Impact on your Patients’ Health: Leveraging Benefits and Mitigating Risk. Journal of the American Board of Family Medicine,  28 (4): 526-534/

Sable, P. (1995). Pets, attachment, and well-being across the life cycle. Social work, 40, 334-341.