SingaporeMotherhood | Preschooler & Up

March 2012

How A Pet Can Help Your Child

We hear conflicting opinions on whether our pets should stay when baby comes. Well-meaning older folk relate horror stories about ferocious dogs mauling a young child, or kids with asthma attacks triggered by cat hairs. Yet we also see heartwarming videos and breathtaking pictures of the bond between children and their pets. So which is it?

Well, studies show that there are more benefits for a child’s well-being – emotional, cognitive, social, and physical – to having pets than not. Naturally, applying some common sense will help to ensure that you and your child reap only the good out of the relationship with your pets.

For example, if Snowball came before the baby, then make sure you introduce Baby to the cat tactfully, almost as if Snowball was an older child meeting his baby sibling for the first time. This helps to prevent jealousy issues. Conversely, if you decide to adopt Fido after having a child, make sure that your child learns to be gentle with the puppy, and never leave them unsupervised.


Lower Allergy Risks

Wait, aren’t pet allergies one of the most common triggers of asthma? Well, yes, but according to a study by paediatrician and Chief of the Allergy-Immunology Section of the Medical College of Georgia, Dr Dennis Ownby, having multiple pets actually decreases a child’s risk of developing common allergies. He found that children who were exposed to two or more dogs or cats as babies were less than half as likely to be reactive to both indoor and outdoor allergens as kids who had no pets in the home.

Petrina Lau, owner of local pet shop, Pets Love, and mother of three-year-old Gareth, agrees. She says, “When my son was born, I faced pressure from both sides of the family to give up my dogs and cats. I chose to subscribe to the opposing theory that exposure to the allergens helps build immunity. So far, the theory has proven true and Gareth is a very healthy little boy.”

Increasing Physical Activity

Another physical benefit is more obvious – getting a good workout! For older children and adults, this may be found in taking Fido for a daily walk or having a game of Frisbee. For the younger ones, this could involve a toddler chasing Snowball around the nursery or a six-month-old learning to turn onto his belly so that he can see Cottontail better.

Cai Suqi, 29-year-old marketing manager and mother of a 13-month-old boy, is convinced that “the cats motivated Shayne to crawl sooner, because he was always looking at them when they were walking, running or jumping up and down. It’s like he couldn’t wait to be a part of their pack and indeed when he started crawling, he started going after them!”

Providing Comfort and Building Trust

Pets also provide an infinite source of comfort, whether it be in offering a furry cuddle or simply by being close by. Professor Emerita of Developmental Studies at Purdue University, Indiana, and author of Why the Wild Things Are: Animals in the Lives of Children, Dr Gail F. Melson, asked a group of five-year-old pet owners what they did when they felt sad, angry, afraid or had a secret. More than 40 per cent spontaneously mentioned turning to their pets.

“Kids who get support from their animal companions were rated by their parents as less anxious and withdrawn,” she says. Having an ever-present dog, cat or even fish, can provide a sense of security and even help ease separation anxiety in kids with working parents.

In addition, positive relationships with pets can aid in the development of trusting relationships with others. Children often talk to pets like they talk to a favourite toy. The concept is simple – pets don’t judge and any secret is safe with them!

Instilling Self-Esteem and Self-Confidence

Perhaps one of the greatest gifts a pet can give to a child is a sense of self-worth. From very early on, children go through life being constantly evaluated by parents, teachers, and peers, from being able to recognise their own eyes and toes, to academic, athletic and even artistic achievements later on in school. Animals have no such expectations. Complete acceptance from them instils confidence in even the most insecure child.

What’s more, pets also help shy children open up further, simply by giving them something to talk about in company and a shared interest with their peers. So says Dr Mary Renck Jalongo, professor of Professional Studies in Education at the Indiana University of Pennsylvania and author of The World of Children and Their Companion Animals. When she asked a group of children what advice they would give less popular kids, the top answer was “Get a pet!”

Helping with Learning Disabilities

One of the most under-rated yet valuable benefits a pet can provide a child is in communicating with non-verbal cues. For everyone else, this means learning essential communication skills which can be applied to human interaction, as children learn to decipher the subtleties of body language. But for children with learning impediments such as Autism and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), this may be a godsend.

Canine behaviourist John Richardson – The Dog Whisperer, quotes a touching example of how an adequately-trained dog helped a child with Autism improve her social skills. “I was contacted by Mrs Summer, a mother whose four-year-old daughter, Rose, was Autistic and was having extreme difficulty in communicating with people. Mrs Summer had adopted a young Cocker Spaniel named ‘Jock’, but the dog needed training, and I had been asked to help.

“On my first visit, Rose was very shy and when I started to speak to her about her doggie, she ran out of the room. On my second session, Rose stayed in the room and was quite calm, and by the third session (just six weeks later), she couldn’t stop talking about her lovely dog and the activities she wanted to do with Jock. I had a call from Mrs Summer some months later, thanking me for the help. She said Rose’s communication skills had improved immensely since Jock had come into their lives.”

Apart from teaching communication, pets can also help children with learning disabilities learn how to regulate stress and calm themselves. This allows overly aggressive kids or those with ADHD to slow down and stay attentive. Playing with a pet is also an excellent way to work off excess energy, leading to a better night’s rest.

Teaching Compassion and a Nurturing Nature

Having pets teaches compassion, empathy, affection, respect and loyalty, and these are definitely values we want our kids to grow up with. “I think Snowball looks sad. Why is Snowball sad?” may be something you hear from the lips of a three-year-old. Children naturally become curious about how their pets may be feeling and this curiosity will naturally extend itself to allow for greater engagement with others around them.

The next step will be learning how to take care of another living being, because a child will take pleasure and pride in keeping the pet healthy and happy. On the flip side, pets even teach children how to take care of themselves. Once they realise why it is important to brush Fido’s teeth regularly, they will naturally understand why they have to keep their own teeth clean! Best of all, this will result in building a sense of responsibility and accomplishment.

Petrina sums this up succinctly: “Having pets in a family teaches a child to be responsible, caring and sensitive to the feelings of others. Every family sets their own learning environment. I wouldn’t say there are any disadvantages to not having a pet; rather, it is an experience lost. The feeling of having a best friend who loves you unconditionally is difficult to find.”

Providing Lessons on Life Skills

Rebecca Reynolds Weil, occupational therapist and executive director of The Nature Connection, Inc, formally known as the Animals As Intermediaries programme, says that by interacting with animals, “Children learn how the world and living things are interconnected.”

Pets provide a platform where children can learn lessons about life, from reproduction and birth to illnesses and death. They learn how to cope with joy and bereavement, something that will stand them in good stead the rest of their lives.

At the end of the day, be it moments spent playing with Fido, petting Snowball, talking to Polly or watching Goldie swim around, more and more experts and parents agree that no matter what kind of pet you have completing your family circle, they are good for your overall health and well-being.

Natural mood enhancers, their ability to give unconditional love and unwavering kindness helps to reduce stress levels and increase our serotonin production. And that can only be good for our children as well.

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How A Pet Can Help Your Child