Getting a pet for your family might seem like an added chore for mom and dad. Though pets do require an investment of time, money, and care, research suggests that the health benefits of pets are more than worth it. A family pet can get you and your kids to be more physically active, improve everyone’s health, and help buffer the effects of stress, not to mention the unconditional love and affection a pet gives to its people.
Reaping the Benefits of Pets
Besides the sheer excitement of having a healthy pet, here’s how you and your family can benefit:
More physical activity. Dogs in particular are likely to get you and your family up and moving, whether for regular walks or some rambunctious play in the park. According to research on the physical activity levels of 2,071 children in England, published in the International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity, having a pet was strongly correlated with being more active — a great antidote to hours spent sitting in front of a computer. This relationship between pet ownership and physical activity holds true even for teens, a notoriously tough group to get moving.
Improved heart health. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, getting a pet can lead to healthier triglycerides and blood pressure levels. Results from a 20-year health study found that having a cat offered protection against severe heart disease. Other studies show that having a dog helps to lower your heart rate and blood pressure, according to a research review published in Frontiers in Psychology.
Protection against allergies. “I’ve seen research that says if you have a dog or cat in the home, there might be some long-term reduction in risk for allergy,” says pediatrician Jonathon Gold, MD, an associate professor of pediatrics and human development at Michigan State University in Lansing. One study, published in the journal Clinical and Experimental Allergy, found that having a cat in the home reduced the likelihood of wheezing, a symptom of allergic response, among infants and toddlers. However, dog and cat dander are strong asthma and allergy triggers for some people, so don’t ignore this risk if you or another family member already has an allergy.
Empathy and caring. “Pet ownership teaches all kids about empathy and caring,” says Dr. Gold. He advises matching a child’s level of responsibility for the pet to the child’s age and ability. For example, 5-year-old might be able to assist with grooming, feeding, and walking but should not be expected to do any of these chores by themselves. Kids of middle-school age may be able to take on some solo family pet care responsibility with reminders from a parent.
Better social connections. Family pets offer companionship, which may be particularly beneficial for children who have special needs, such as autism, that can be isolating, says Gold. According to research published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, pets may also help make you or your children feel better after social rejection. Other research has shown that getting a pet, such as a dog, seems to improve social interactions between people.
Better health management. A recent study published in the journal Seizure looked at the benefits of family pet ownership in households with someone living with epilepsy. Researchers found that having a pet reduced seizures and may reduce stress and improve patients’ coping skills. This in turn reduced the impact of epilepsy and, possibly, other chronic conditions.
Getting a Pet: A Few Simple Cautions
Remember that dogs, cats, and almost every other family pet you invite into your home are still animals. Among young children, most dog bites come from their own dogs or dogs they know well. “The owner of the pet should watch and not leave the pet alone with the child,” says Gold. Even well-trained animals can be provoked by a young child who pushes, pokes, and pulls it and moves in unexpected ways.
Gold advises teaching children from a young age not to make sudden movements or loud noises around their own pets or other people’s and to be aware that anything more forceful than gentle pats can hurt an animal.
With care and training for both children and pets, getting a pet can bring real and lasting benefits to the entire family. And that’s an evidence-based argument to consider the next time your young child asks for a puppy or kitten.
~ Courtesy of Everyday Health
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