Can a Pet Dog Improve the Mental Health of Your Child?

Can a Pet Dog Improve the Mental Health of Your Child?

by from Medelita | Thursday, Jun 23, 2016

Did you know that in Australia and the UK, owning a dog has been linked with increased physical activity among children aged 5-12 years and healthier body mass index (BMI) in those aged 5-6 years, due to walking and active play with pets. According to research published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a pet dog may protect your child from childhood anxiety.

US childhood obesity and mental illness are significant public health concerns. Preventive and early intervention approaches are imperative since these conditions often start in childhood and follow the individual through later life.

Promoting children's behavioral and emotional competence can help prevent mental, emotional and behavioral disorders during adulthood. Though there is little concrete data for primary care providers to cite when counseling parents regarding the benefits of pet dogs for young children, there is substantial anecdotal evidence indicating that pet ownership can promote healthy social development. Just simply owning pets can stimulate conversation, alleviating social anxiety for a child. Additionally, dogs also tend to follow human communicative cues, which could help in emotional development

In a recent study that investigated the hypothesis that pet dogs are positively associated with healthy weight and mental health among children, researchers from Bassett Medical Center in New York looked at 643 children aged 4-10 years, with an average age of 6.7 years, over an 18-month period in a pediatric primary care setting. Of these children, 45% were female, 56% were privately insured and 58% had pet dogs in the home.

Parents completed a health risk screener online, focusing on child BMI, physical activity, screen time, mental health and pet ownership, before and annual visit. 

The study was carried out in a real-world setting and was based on children in preventive care, not including the widely tested control group of children with mental and developmental disorders.

Pet dogs and stress

There was no difference was found between children with and without a pet dog regarding BMI, screen time or physical activity.

However, among the 58% of children with a dog in the home, 12% tested positive on a screening test for anxiety, compared with 21% of children who did not have a pet dog. It should also be noted that the participants in this study were 96% white, suggesting a dire need for further data within racially and ethnically diverse populations.

The researchers suggest:

"Interacting with a friendly dog also reduces cortisol levels, most likely through oxytocin release, which lessens physiologic responses to stress. These hormonal effects may underlie the observed emotional and behavioral benefits of animal-assisted therapy and pet dogs."

There is, however, plenty of evidence that suggests pet dogs can be instrumental in helping to soothe the stress of adults diagnosed with anxiety, a coping mechanism that doesn't require the use of pharmaceutical drugs. According to the founder of EmotionalSupportDog.com,

"A study done in 2002, shows that humans had a decrease in blood pressure, improved mental help and an increase in comfort when they were accompanied by an animal."