Recently my son called me to ask me if I recommended that children grow up and live with pets, specifically dogs? Interesting question Benjamin. Actually, there is a lot of new interest from by both psychologists and immunologist around this question. Since I’m always looking for subjects that parents will find both practical and informative I thought this would be a good topic for a post. So today, we are going to take on the following questions; are there emotional benefits from children growing up around dogs and does the presence of a dog in the home improve the health of babies and children? Stay tuned for this thought provoking and informative pedcast I have called, 6 Reasons Babies Benefit Living w/ Pets.
Emotional benefits children get from pet ownership
Let’s start with the emotional benefits of living with and being responsible for the well being of a dog. Recently I saw an article in INC. magazine that claims there are scientific, proven advantages for children when they live and grow up with pets, specifically, dogs. Glenn Leibowitz, the author of the article, enumerated four strong emotional reasons for parents to consider dog ownership when their children are growing up.
- Dogs make children happy-This reason is pretty easy to see when most children are near dogs. They light up. Yes, there may be a little fear but also a strong urge to touch, pet, and play with.
- Dogs help children learn to care for others– Children from a very young age understand that dogs require care and living with them gives the child a chance to flip the roles from being the one who is cared for to the one who is actually providing the care. Invaluable!.
- Dogs make children gentle-Every child who plays with dogs eventually crosses the line between play and actually hurting the dog. Recognizing that they need to be gentle and that the dog can be hurt with rough play is an important lesson for any child to learn.
- Dogs foster independence-This just makes sense. Dog ownership demands that everyone in the family accepts some responsibility for the care of the dog. Mastering these tasks allows children to learn to become self-starters, learn new skills, and develop future thinking and judgment skills; all prerequisites to independence.
Science Drive: Physical Benefits of having pets in your home
Fair enough. I think most of us would agree that children get emotional benefits from pets but Doc Smo is going to take Mr. Leibowitz’s arguments one-step further. Now we are going to shift gears and discuss the emerging medical research that has found strong physical reasons for parents to consider having a furry creatures living under their roof, especially when their children are babies. To do that, we need a quick tour down “Science Lane” to get some basic science concepts nailed down for you. Let’s learn about your baby’s immune system’s development.
We live in a very germy world so it is vital that babies be born with some ability to recognize and defend themselves from germs that they will encounter. At birth, although fairly weak, they are able to turn on what is called their innate immune system when presented with an infection or threat from the outside world. The innate immune response consists of fever and increased numbers of killer white cells. After a few months of age however, babies begin to use a much more targeted and powerful part of their immune system called the adaptive immune system, that can, as the name implies, adapt and target invading germs. So you can see that a baby’s immune system, both innate and adaptive is developing when they are very young. More and more pediatricians are realizing that having a healthy immune system development is critical for the child’s long-term good health. Those early experiences with a variety of germs is literally teaching your baby’s immune system what is friend and what is foe! What recent research has discovered is that the microbes that babies live with, on the inside and outside, are critical to their development of a healthy immune system, an immune system where they only react to things that are real threats, not innocuous things like peanuts, milk, egg white, and shellfish. These microbes actually tweak the baby’s immune system to react to real threats but become tolerant of non-dangerous things. Bottom line: Living with an abundance of diverse microbes seems to turn off these nonsense allergic reactions and allows a baby to develop healthy appropriate immune responses.
Now back to those furry creatures we call dogs. It turns out that in homes where dogs live along with humans, the variety of microbial life living on the dust is very different than it is in homes without pets and many researchers believe that exposure to such dust gives babies critical immune function when they are very young. Some people go as far as to say the living with a dog is the new probiotic. Breathing this microbe-laden dust, eating it, crawling around in it, and licking it, may be the way that a baby’s immune system is charged up properly. And not only are there fewer nonsense reactions that seem to serve no biologic function, but baby’s who get this dirty dog microbe exposure early in life seem to be much less prone to inhalant allergies, asthma, eczema, and those terrible autoimmune disorders like Crohn’s disease, Juvenile Idiopathic Arthritis, and Type 1 Diabetes. I would take caring for a dog over any of these chronic diseases any day, wouldn’t you?
Children have a strong attraction to animals
So you can now see that children seem to benefit, emotionally and physically, if they live with animals. We now have evidence of this for children exposed to dogs and farm animals but most likely, all animals provide these benefits.
Doesn’t that make sense considering that human children and animals have been living together for millennia? Animals have been an important part of the human community, the tribe so to speak, probably for as long as humans have been living together in groups. Of course our presence affects them and theirs ours. In fact, I believe you can see the strong relationship between animals and children today in a young child’s behavior. Consider a few facts that demonstrate this point:
–Observation #1-Most infants and children, when first presented with a dog, find them very interesting and attractive. They get excited and are usually anxious to touch the animal albeit with the safety of their parent at their side.
–Observation #2-Most school age children are anxious to care for an injured animal such as a bird or squirrel that they stumble across. Why would this be if there wasn’t already a strong attraction between animals and children?
–Observation #3-Some babies are attracted to toy replicas of humans, (i.e. dolls) but most prefer toy replicas of animals (i.e. stuffed animals).
–Observation #4-Cartoon characters are often depicted in an animal body that possesses human traits. The animal can talk, reason, think, has a sense of humor etc. Could it be that children don’t see much difference between humans and animals, especially animals that humans have domesticated? I think so and the tendency to blend human characteristics with animal features just seems natural to most children.
Conclusions- Children seem to be healthiest, emotionally and physically, if they live with animals
Nature has been fine tuning children for a very long time so, to me, it makes sense that, over time, the human family has become intertwined with the animal family. Hard science of today, especially microbiology and immunology, are beginning to not only recognize this fact but also work out the mechanisms that make this tick. So let’s review some of the ways children benefit from growing up around pets, especially dogs;
–Dogs evoke a happiness response from most babies and children, lowering their stress.
–Children who care for dogs learn the importance of caring for others, a vital lesson of life.
— Playing with dogs teaches child how to be gentle with play and have empathy for others.
–Living with and caring for a dog fosters a sense of independence in the children who care for the dog by allowing the child to contribute to the dog and family’s well being.
–Babies who have early exposure to animals have been shown to have better immune function in infancy, and possibly for life.
–The microbial diversity in the dust of a home where a dog lives is much greater than those homes without the pet. This diversity seems to lessen the chance that the babies and children who grow up in those homes will develop allergies or autoimmune disorders.
The dark side of caring for animals.
But Doc Smo, aren’t there negatives to owning dogs and other pets? Of course there are. Not only are pets expensive to care for, destructive at times, and a major increase to parents to list. But I still think, if you can afford to care for a pet and enjoy animals, the benefits outweigh the liabilities of caring for a pet.
Thanks for joining me today. If you enjoy learning about child health with pedcasts, please consider taking a moment to write a brief review of Portable Practical Pediatrics on iTunes or my Facebook page, DocSmo.com or subscribing to my blog at www.docsmo.com. By doing so, I will send you an email each time I post new content… that’s all. This is Dr. Paul Smolen, Doc Smo, hoping you consider going in whole hog, the next time your kids beg for a dog. Until next time.