Friendly Pet Dogs Improve A Child's Health, CDC Suggests

Having a pet dog in the home helps in reducing childhood anxiety, according to research recently published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The U.S. Public Health Service reports that pet dogs have been linked with health benefits for adults. The CDC decided to see if there's any evidence whether pet dogs offer any health advantages for children, as well.

Childhood obesity and mental illness are significant public health concerns in the United States. Experts suggest that it's important to try to prevent these problems early. Until recently, information about the health benefits of dog ownership for children has been lacking in the U.S.; therefore, a study on how pets help benefit children was finally initiated.

Velodrom And Joey
[Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images]Pets help in stimulating conversation. Talking about pets is an icebreaker that eases social anxiety. Dogs are noted for being able to follow human communicative cues, which could help in emotional development.

It's reported that children aged 7 to 8-years-old actually consider pets as better confidants, and providers of comfort and self-esteem, than humans. According to U.S. pet ownership statistics offered by the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA), close to 36 percent of U.S. households own a dog, and nearly 30 percent own a cat.

When dogs are used in animal-assisted therapy, they help in reducing anxiety and arousal. Dogs also lessen separation anxiety and improve attachment in children, which reduces developmental disorders and improves mental health. By promoting a child's emotional and behavioral abilities at an early age with exposure to pet dogs during childhood, dog interactions could prevent potential problems from developing during adolescence or adulthood.

In the United Kingdom and Australia, dog ownership has been linked with increased physical activity among children aged 5-12 years. Additionally, 5 to 6-year-old children with pet dogs were found to have a healthier body mass index (BMI) due to playing with and walking the canine.

In the current study, researchers from Bassett Medical Center in New York investigated the theory that pet dogs are positively associated with healthy weight and mental health among children.

For an 18-month period in a pediatric primary care setting, researchers looked at 643 children aged 4-10 years, with an average age of 6.7 years. The young participants comprised of 45 percent female; 56 percent were privately insured, and 58 percent had pet dogs in the home.

An online health risk screener was completed by parents before an annual visit. The screener focused on child BMI, screen time, mental health, physical activity, and pet ownership.

The results of this study showed no difference between children with and without a pet dog regarding BMI, screen time or physical activity.

However, among 58 percent of the children with a dog in the home, only 12 percent tested positive on a screening test for anxiety, compared with 21 percent of children who didn't have a pet dog.

Pet Dogs Reduce Strees
A young boy pets a therapy dog named Toby. [Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images]This study carries a little more weight than previous studies performed, since it was carried out in a real-world setting and was based on children in preventive care. In addition, it was much larger and a more comprehensive group was studied compared to earlier studies, which primarily focused on children with developmental and mental disorders.

On the other hand, parents reporting on their child's condition could be viewed as a limitation, although statistics have shown high agreement between actual mental health issues and what parents are reporting. Additionally, the study population was 96 percent white, which suggests that further studies are necessary in more ethnically and racially diverse populations.

Nonetheless, the researchers briefly explain the effects friendly pet dogs have on humans.

"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."
The pet dogs study titled, Pet Dogs and Children's Health: Opportunities for Chronic Disease Prevention?, is published in the Preventing Chronic Disease section of the CDC's website.

[Photo by Carl Court/Getty Images]