Taking the leap from visiting an animal, to owning a pet is a large one. There are the usual concerns regarding space, cleanliness and added responsibilities. On the other, there are many wonderful ways an animal can enrich children’s lives. Children not only get a cute and cuddly creature to love, but one which could help them increase their self-confidence, improve their health or, surprisingly, enhance their reading skills!
Read more: Are Dogs Good for Kids?
5 Benefits of Owning a Pet
A pet can also strengthen family relationships, providing a common bond around which all family members gravitate. Unlike with siblings, children feel no rivalry for attention or affection from other family members when that attention is lavished on a pet, and with pets there can be no comparisons made.
Owning a pet also teaches young children a valuable early lesson in responsibility and how to care for another living creature. Starting with the basics of being gentle, kind and thoughtful. Chores to help care for their dogs, such as putting out their food and helping with baths. All of these activities give a sense of responsibility and accomplishment, important to building confidence and character in children.
One of the most obvious benefits of owning a pet is the way that they make you feel. Coming home to a pet who is always delighted to see you, with excited jumps, barks or meows, is a definite ego booster for anyone. Research has shown that having a pet to love and be loved unconditionally in return greatly helps build a child’s self-esteem. These early positive experiences can help children overcome fears of rejection. And make them more confident in future interactions with peers, adults or other animals.
The social and emotional developmental benefits from interacting with animals are particularly apparent in the case of special needs children. A study conducted in France found that autistic children who were given a pet after turning five years old, were more socially adjusted and showed more empathy. They shared their toys and comforted other children who were upset. Children who have difficulty communicating with people can gain similar social experiences by interacting with an animal and owning a pet.
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Perhaps one of the more surprising benefits of owning a pet is the effect they can have on literacy. A recent study conducted at the University of California concluded that animals, can be used to help children improve their reading skills. Researchers found, “reading fluency improved by 12% in the first study, and 30% in the second. In both studies, the children read regularly to three shelter-rescued dogs.”
A pet provides a child with an attentive, non-judgmental and stress-free companion to practise and improve reading ability. According to Therapy Dogs International (TDI), children “are often self-conscious when reading aloud in front of other classmates”. This can inadvertently lower a child’s confidence in their abilities, especially in the case of shy, reluctant or challenged readers. TDI claims that by reading to pet, “The child relaxes, pats the attentive dog and focuses on the reading.” The child’s reading improves as they practice more, and gain confidence through this positive interaction.
Research suggests that having pets can decrease the risk of children developing certain allergies and asthma, and can even boost their immune systems. According to The Journal Pediatrics, “Children who lived with dogs were 33% more likely to be healthy during their first year… and 29% less likely to need antibiotics”, compared to children without pets. One hypothesis is that pets constantly introduce pathogens, such as dirt or soil, which strengthen the immune system.
Numerous studies conclude that pet owners exercise more, have lower blood pressure and cholesterol levels. They also considerably reduced risk of heart disease compared to non-pet owners. Families with pets that need outdoor time tend to spend more time walking or playing outside. This introduces a more active daily routine to children from an early age, which tends to become part of their future lifestyle.
In Hong Kong, Animals Asia launched two programmes, “Dr Dog” and “Professor Paws”, to help spread the benefits that animals bring to people. Dr Dog made visits with therapy dogs to hospitals, homes for the elderly or special needs institutions. This programme provided those in need with the benefits of animal-assisted therapy. The programme had great success, especially with autistic children. They showed significant positive behavioural changes, such as increased eye contact and greater interaction with the dogs and caretakers.
Professor Paws made regular visits with dogs to schools and kindergartens to help children overcome their fear of dogs. As well as teach responsible pet care and compassion for animals. According to Karina O’Carroll, the Animal Welfare Education Manager of Animals Asia, this gives children a rare opportunity for hands-on experience with a dog. Such as playing, feeding or brushing the dog. As many children in Hong Kong have not had the opportunity for first-hand interaction with a dogs, some are apprehensive at first. But by the end of the session, most children are able to overcome any initial fear to enthusiastically join in the activities, which is an empowering experience in itself.
Pet ownership is a significant commitment, especially in Hong Kong where space and outdoor areas are scarce. Dr Amanda Oswalt, director of psychology at SPOT, believes that children here might have more to gain from having a pet. She explains that many children in Hong Kong are under a lot of pressure from an early age. Children with helpers in the household have fewer chores and are often more reliant on others to do things for them. Such as feeding themselves or helping to look after a younger sibling. Owning a pet would provide them an empowering and maturing experience, and would also be an exciting way to give them greater responsibilities.
Whether it’s a beloved dog, hamster or tortoise, the many wonderful influences pets can have on children are widely acknowledged. And even without a pet, children can still benefit from any exposure to animals, be it from visiting the zoo, playing with a neighbour’s cat or patting a friendly dog.
This article was updated in January 2021.
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