Written by Martha Anderson RIP-Pets residential blogger
Why are pets beneficial to children?
There are those people, myself included, who could not imagine life without an animal companion; others would not consider it under any circumstances. It is often the case that people who acquire a pet do so ‘for the sake of the children. So is this a valid reason?
It would seem that having a pet to care for does help a child to understand what it is to be responsible. However that depends on the parents ‘allowing’ or making sure that their son or daughter does indeed look after and tend to the needs of their pets. You may, quite naturally, not want your child to walk their dog alone but always bring them with you and do not hesitate to put them on pooper-scooper duty! Children love getting involved in activities and should be encouraged to do so as much as possible.
In the same way get them to help clear the litter trays, observing all the necessary hygiene steps of course. This will ensure that from early on they will realise that playing with their cute little kitten is fun but there is another serious side to living with an animal. Their cat needs to play and interact but also requires a clean and pleasant environment for bodily functions and she depends on ‘her humans’ to provide this.
Looking after pets also teaches children about the value of commitment, the antidote to that well-known saying, ‘A dog is for life not just for Christmas.’ Animals like dogs need to be walked, maybe twice daily, and not just when one feels like it or when the weather is good. An obvious benefit to children is exercise out in the fresh air. We are constantly being reminded how young people more than ever before tend to be over–weight and spend too much time indoors on computers.
Even more important is the understanding on the child’s part that this is for the good of their pet for whom exercise is not just beneficial but essential. He or she deserves on-going care and attention to make their life as happy as possible. This includes vaccinations, health checks, and neutering procedures. The prospect of a trip to the vets after a long day at work can be tiring but it is part of having a pet in your life and an absolute necessity; after all pets cannot articulate what it is that is making them ill. Again bring your child along and encourage them to be of comfort to their pet in unfamiliar surroundings. This will develop their caring skills. It will be very good for their social skills too as a vet’s waiting room is the friendliest place in the world! All self-conscious barriers tumble down as people gaze admiringly at other people’s pets and enquire anxiously as to what it is that ails them. This is done out of a genuine concern, not just curiosity. Animals can bring out the best in people, perhaps because like children they are innocent and vulnerable.
When a pet is in a post-operative state at home a child can learn the value of empathy, – a much-neglected gift in today’s intolerant world. He or she will understand what it feels like to be sick as a result of colds and even more serious bouts of illness. Thus they can identify with their pet who is poorly and not their usual loving and active self. This emotional connectedness with the plight of another can readily translate into their dealings with humans also. At the very best the focus is on someone outside themselves, a being other than ‘me’ who needs my attention and care, not for any benefit that accrues to me but rather for their welfare. They will also realise the need to respect their animal eg. let them rest and do not disturb them when they are in the process of recovery.
Children, especially those without siblings can often experience loneliness and anxiety. Cuddling a pet could provide comfort and reassurance in troubled times and of course pets bring a new dimension to all ‘make-believe’ games, especially solitary ones. They are an encouragement to young people to go out and play while developing their imaginative and creative skills.
Now for the scientific bit! Research has shown that children who grow up in families with pets have less risk of developing common allergies and asthmas. Some findings in JAMA Pediatrics support the idea that pets can bolster the immune system and prevent allergies). The basis of the “hygiene hypothesis’ suggests that early exposure to allergens and bacteria reduces allergies and improves a child’s resistance to disease. (www.bbc.com/news/health-34697408).
More interesting again are the studies showing that reading to their dog can encourage children, especially those who have difficulties in that area. The practice began in America in 1999 with the Reading Education Assistance Dogs (READ) scheme and initiatives of his type now extend to a number of countries. A dog is reassuring, non-critical and his/her presence helps to make the surroundings more relaxed and non-threatening. Dogs have a calming effect which is why they are used in Pets as Therapy schemes (PAT).
Finally, pets can provide total, non-judgemental acceptance of their young owner. They really do provide that greatest of all gifts-unconditional love.