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Having a pet can help your child thrive

With a new puppy romping around the White House, kids are bound to start asking whether it’s about time for their family to get a pet as well. Whether kids grow up on a farm filled with animals or in a city with a fish tank, animals are an important part of childhood.

But not too long ago, doctors were warning parents that having pets in the house with young children wasn’t a good idea. There were fears that pets might cause children to have allergies, and some soon-to-be parents even parted with pets to ensure the best environment for their newborns. But as animal lovers suspected all along, new studies show pets are beneficial to kids in many ways.

In a study reported in the Journal of the American Medical Association, researchers found that children who were exposed to two or more dogs and cats in infancy were just half as likely to develop allergies as those with no pet exposure. While the mechanism of this is still unknown, theories abound. One theory is that while a small amount of an allergen may cause a reaction, a large amount of exposure (like what you would receive growing up around pets) is protective. The lead researcher in one of the studies showing a reduction in allergies told CNN, “Maybe part of the reason we have so many children with allergies and asthma is we live too clean a life.”

While Mary’s little lamb got in trouble for following her to school, the health benefits of owning a pet can actually extend to the classroom. Believe it or not, there are some impressive studies showing better school attendance in children who grow up with pets. A study by the University of Warwick looking at children ages 4 to 11 showed pet ownership was significantly associated with better school attendance rates. While there have been some studies showing that dog ownership had a greater protective health benefit than cat ownership, in this study there was no significant difference with pet type. Researchers postulate that the pet-owning children had a more active immune system, didn’t get sick as often and therefore missed less school.

While physical health is essential, mental health is just as important. Over the last 20 years a number of studies have shown how pets can help people in emotional crisis. Now research suggests pet ownership can also be beneficial to even the most stable child. As the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry states on its Website, “A child who learns to care for an animal, and treat it kindly and patiently, may get invaluable training in learning to treat people the same way.” A study done at Oregon State University showed that teaching preschool children to care for a puppy made the children more cooperative and sharing. In addition to helping to teach children compassion, having a pet also gives children a playmate and comforter. As the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry states, “Developing positive feelings about pets can contribute to a child’s self-esteem and self-confidence.”While all of these benefits clearly show pets can be a positive force in children’s lives, be sure to follow a few guidelines to ensure a good experience for pets and people. Young children should be supervised when they interact with pets to avoid any unintended conflict. As many parents know, young children do not always understand the need to be gentle, especially when they’re excited.Parents must also realize that the daily care of the animal — making sure it has food, water and proper habitat — will most likely fall on them at some point. Even the best-intentioned child can sometimes be distracted from the needs of their animal companions. And children need to practice good hygiene with pets — don’t overlook teaching them about frequent hand washing and not sharing food with the animal.

A pet can be an easy and beneficial addition to your household and your child’s life. And you will get the extra benefit of always having a friend who is happy to see you.Sara Shaw is a veterinarian in Spokane.

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