Seattle's Child

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Pets actually can be beneficial to a child's immune system, not to mention their mental health. (Stock photo)

Pets are good for kids; here’s why | Ask the Pediatrician

Thinking about getting a pet? Here's what to know.

“You cannot share your life with a dog and not know perfectly well that animals have personalities and minds and feelings.” – Dr. Jane Goodall

Possibly because it is spring or possibly because Dr. Jane Goodall, preeminent primatologist, recently spoke in Seattle, people are talking about pets.

Adding a pet to your family is a big decision, but there are huge benefits if you decide to take the leap. Teaching empathy, responsibility, getting outside and boosting the immune system (unless your child has known allergies) are some of the plusses. The key is to choose your pet and the timing wisely to set yourself up for success. Let’s celebrate spring by talking about the power of pets.

Kids and pets: the benefits

Furry friends can boost immunity and reduce asthma
I’ve said it before: Dirt can be a good thing when it comes to our health. Exposure to germs makes for a more resilient immune system and can improve the human microbiome, reducing the risk of developing allergies.

Studies have shown that children who grow up with pets are less likely to experience colds, ear infections, coughs, asthma, allergies and eczema compared to those not exposed to animals. This is particularly true for dogs, but any furry animals, especially those that go in and out of the house, can boost immunity and reduce other risks over a lifetime. Amazingly, petting a dog for even a short time can raise antibody levels that protect against infection.

If your children have environmental allergies, be cautious about introducing a new pet as they can increase symptoms in people who already have allergies.

kids and pets

If feeding the pet is your child’s responsibility, you’ll need to ensure that they do it. (Stock image)

Kids and pets: more pluses

Pets help develop responsibility
Walking the family dog or feeding the hamster can help build consistent routines, which can teach responsibility and help organize the day. Caring for pets is a good way to learn empathy, compassion and thoughtfulness toward others. It also builds nonverbal communication skills and — some research shows — language skills: Your child is still building vocabulary during a one-sided conversation with the dog.

Pets are good for mental health and physical health
What’s more calming than a tail wag or a deep purr? Pets provide positive interaction for children and a sense of security, especially for children with anxiety, autism spectrum disorder and ADHD. Animals can take the stress out of new situations and be a calming presence at the end of the day. Pets even help lower blood pressure in adults and can combat loneliness and depression at any age. Taking a dog for a walk is a fun way to get outside, get your blood pumping, chat and play.

Connecting to nature
Living with a pet is also a way to connect to nature and life cycles. Our urban lives are often disconnected to nature. Caring for a pet throughout its life is a way to talk about the life cycle. We recent lost our longtime cat, and it prompted important discussions about life, aging and death. These are difficult conversations but also so real and part of being a human being.

 

kids and pets

Get advice so you choose an animal that’s a good fit for your family and your lifestyle. (Stock photo)

Kids and pets: things to think about

Set yourself up for success: Choose the right pet
There is no doubt, having a pet can be a great addition to a family, but it is also work. If your hope is to have the pet be a companion for your child, it makes sense to wait until they are at least 5 to 6 years old and they are mature enough to treat the animal appropriately. Often younger children view pets like “animated stuffies,” which can lead to roughhousing, running the risk of getting scratched or bitten.

Spend time with your child researching what type of pet would be appropriate. Learn about the temperament and care needs before making the decision. You want to select a pet that works for your family.

Make a realistic plan
Having appropriate expectations is also key. No question, your child will promise to do everything, every day, forever during the initial pet discussion. We all know that this enthusiasm wanes. Make a realistic plan with your child about what you expect them to do. Stay involved so you are aware when they need prompting to meet care needs. For example, does the dog have water?, etc.

There are lots of wonderful rescue animals out there looking for forever homes. You can talk with the coordinators at your local shelter about finding a fit for your lifestyle and your children’s ages and temperament. Whatever pet is right for you and your family, consider the pet’s needs, too, and the time, money and responsibility that go into caring for a pet over the years.

With the right fit, pets are wonderful companions, teachers and friends! Good boy!

 

More from Dr. Block and Kaiser Permanente in Seattle’s Child:

 

 

About the Author

Susanna Block

Dr. Susanna Block, MD, MPH, is a pediatrician with Kaiser Permanente in Seattle and lives with her family in Queen Anne.