Pet dogs reduce children’s anxiety, a new study published in the journal Preventing Chronic Disease has shown. Research was carried out by experts from Dartmouth Medical School, Basset Medical Center, University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center, in rural upstate New York, across a period of 18 months.
A group of 643 children (with the average age of 6.7 years) were involved in the analysis, based on data collected from annual pediatric wellness checks.
The subjects’ parents were required to fill in a questionnaire using an iPad, before their kids’ physical exams. This included questions regarding their offspring’s weight, height, daily nutrition, physical fitness and mental health. The adults were also asked to answer if their children had a pet or not, and if yes to provide extra details.
Researchers took into account that the parents’ own mental status might influence their answers regarding their kids, so in order to ensure greater accuracy they also screened the adults for depression.
Afterwards, they focused on comparing the 370 children with dogs against the 273 kids who didn’t have such pets, given that these had been the most common animals owned by the respondents, according to study author Anne Gadomski, research scientist and attending pediatrician at Bassett Healthcare Network.
It was determined that children who had a pet dog had a lowered likelihood of suffering from anxiety, in comparison with those who had different furry companions.
More precisely, dog owners had a 12% probability of being affected by anxiety and similar states of inner turmoil, whereas among those without dogs unpleasant feelings of dread were much more common, affecting around 21% of the children.
In fact, lowered rates of anxiety remained noticeable even when controlling for certain variables such as household income level.
On the other hand, there were no statistically significant differences between kids with dogs and those without such pets, when it came to their body mass index, their overall level of physical activity, or their daily screen time (spent watching TV, playing video games and using computers or smartphones).
Based on their findings, researchers now believe that there are several explanations for the beneficial effect of dog ownership in terms of reducing social and separation anxiety.
For example, having a canine friend can act like an ice-breaker between children, by providing them with a good opening topic in the early beginnings of a potential friendship.
It also offers kids a reason to bond with each other, sharing a love for dogs being perceived as a building block in their relationship.
Moreover, the authors now infer that this might mean that having a canine pet could diminish the risk of developing generalized anxiety disorder or depression during adolescence or even later in life, by enabling kids to engage in positive, beneficial interactions.
As the National Institute of Mental Health estimates, around 1 in 8 children suffer from anxiety, and this can result in disrupted sleep, learning difficulties, unsatisfactory academic performance, social alienation, and higher risk of abusing substances such as alcohol or illicit drugs.
The study’s results may need to be further investigated using follow-up analysis, but they are actually in accordance with prior research, which had also pointed out that being in the presence of dogs can boost the activity of the happiness hormone (oxytocin), while significantly lowering stress (by reducing the production of cortisol).
In some cases, the name of their dog is the first word kids ever utter, and canine friends are often seen as sources of solace and self-esteem.
In addition, researchers at Uppsala University in Sweden have shown earlier this month that exposure to dogs during the baby’s first year of life lowers the likelihood of developing allergies later in life, probably because house dust changes its composition, thus influencing the child’s own gut flora.
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