Children seek out their pets when they are upset63 and view pets as confidantes and providers of support and comfort. Companion animals are often ranked higher than certain human relationships in children’s social networks64. Youngest children, and children without brothers and sisters, show greater attachment to pets, suggesting that pets may be particularly important for these children. Adolescents derive more satisfaction from, and engage in less conflict with, their pets than their siblings50 indicating the importance of pets in the family structure. A recent systematic review of the literature on companion animals and child/adolescent development found evidence for a wide range of emotional health benefits from childhood pet ownership, particularly for self-esteem and loneliness65.
In a study examining 643 children over 18 months in a pediatric primary care setting, have a pet dog at home was associated with a decreased probability of childhood anxiety66. Although this result is thought provoking, we don’t know if the association is causal, and if it is, how pet dogs may alleviate childhood anxiety.
Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD)
A person with ASD experiences persistent difficulties in social interactions in a variety of contexts and may also display restrictive, repetitive behaviors which may further complicate their ability to connect with other people67. These problems are evident in childhood, causing significant impairment in functioning that are not the result of intellectual disorders or developmental delays. The term “spectrum” implies that ASD is complex, varies widely from child to child and is often comorbid with other developmental disorders. ASD can create unique challenges in each child therefore therapeutic treatments need to be dynamic and adaptable to meet the needs of each child.
Research has shown that children with ASD show increased social interactions and skills when interacting with animals. Specifically, they:
As a result of these types of findings, many parents now consider acquiring a pet dog for their child with ASD. Due to the wide range of individual differences associated with ASD and reactions of children with ASD to dogs this approach is not a panacea, but there is increasing evidence to suggest that dogs may be beneficial for some children with ASD71. One study showed that scores for family functioning improved for dog-owning families compared to non-dog owning families with a child with ASD. Further, this study also showed that anxiety scores in the dog-owning groups were significantly lower than the non-dog owning group. The results of this study illustrate the potential for pet dogs to improve family functioning and reduce child anxiety.
Researchers have also developed a scale to help families determine if acquiring a dog is likely to be positively impactful for them72. This research highlights that individual differences associated with the child and the training approach taken are likely important considerations for positive impact from dog ownership on families with a child with ASD.
Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)
Children with ADHD are frequently treated with stimulant medications to reduce symptoms, but the long-term benefits of those medications are unclear and treatment adherence is often low73. These children are often impaired in self-regulation, are impatient, do not attend to social cues, struggle with anger management and have difficulty accepting consequences. A 12-week cognitive behavioral intervention, with or without, a canine assisted intervention was conducted73. This study showed that both groups were effective in reducing ADHD symptoms, but those children who received the canine intervention exhibited greater reductions in the severity of ADHD. This result is important because it demonstrates that a dog-assisted intervention can enhance the impact of a standard (cognitive behavioral) intervention for ADHD. This is approach is innovative, inexpensive, and effective.
Dog-assisted interventions have also been shown to improve self-perceived self-esteem in children with ADHD74.
In a review of the literature on animal-assisted interventions for children with ADHD a number of studies were examined and possible mechanisms of action were discussed including calming, socializing, motivating, and cognitive effects75. Each of these proposed effects can have a positive impact on several core symptoms of ADHD.
Coping with Loss
Losing a pet can be emotionally challenging for anyone, but researchers discuss the loss of a pet as an opportunity for children to learn about life, their relatedness to other non-human animals, and about death itself, as a way of developing coping strategies for the experience of the loss later in life76. Having effective coping strategies makes one more resilient to life’s stressors and challenges resulting in better mental and physical health.