Children and pets

“The dog was created specially for children. He is the god of frolic.” ~ Henry Ward Beecher

There are many physical and psychological advantages from living with pets at any age, but there is a substantial body of research which suggests that children, in particular, benefit from growing up with family pets. To anyone who has whispered secrets into a willing, but furry ear, as a child, will know that pets are an important source of comfort and friendship as we navigate the tricky shoals of growing up. The relationship humans have with animals is very old and very strong. The recent interest in the subject of human-animal relationships (anthrozoology) is beginning to show us just how important that bond is.

Physical health

Physically growing up with animals has direct health benefits, including a decreased risk of allergies and asthma. (Gern, J.A. et al (2004) Effects of dog ownership and genotype on immune development and atopy in infancy, The Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology, Volume 113, Issue 2 , Pages 307-314.)

“If a dog lived in the home, infants were less likely to show evidence of pet allergies — 19% vs. 33%. They also were less likely to have eczema, a common allergy skin condition that causes red patches and itching. In addition, they had higher levels of some immune system chemicals — a sign of stronger immune system activation.”

And of course, owing a dog is an incentive to get out and about and be more active. A 2009 study of 5000 British dog owners, “found that the average dog owner takes their dog out on three walks per week for a total of two hours and 33 minutes, in addition to the average daily exercise sessions which add up to another five hours and 38 minutes per week. In comparison, the average non-pet owner spends about 1 hour and 20 minutes exercising each week at the gym or otherwise, while 47% of non-pet owners do not exercise at all.”

Emotional health

But alongside the physical health benefits of pet ownership, there are also a number of powerful psychological benefits. Interacting with pets can help develop nuturing skills such responsibility and  empathy, as well as nurturing self-esteem and improved social skills.
Owning pets can also help people with mild to moderate depression and there is some evidence that interacting with pets can help with some other forms of mental illness.


Of course, alongside benefits there are also risks which need to be taken into account. There some zoonotic diseases (diseases which can be passed from animals to humans) which need to be taken into account, although common-sense and normal hygiene practices will substantially decrease the risk – particularly lots of hand washing after touching pets and before eating or playing with toys. Keeping your pets parasite (worm and flea) control up-to-date and keeping your pet and its environment clean will go a long way to preventing zoonoses.

Dog bites

However, for children one of the biggest risks is from injury. Children, particularly very young children, have no sense of risk and don’t necessarily understand that their behaviour might be dangerous – which is why, when it comes to children and pets, prevention, supervision and education are extremely important.

Fatal dog attacks are very rare, but bites and scratches are not. As a parent it is your responsibility to protect both your child and your pet to ensure that everyone can be safe.
The Royal Childrens Hospital’s Dogs and Kids site has lots of useful information about ensuring the safety of children living with dogs.
You can download a handy poster with guidelines for preventing dog bites and the Dogs and Kids booklet has lots of useful advice about living with kids and dogs. It is available in a number of community languages.

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