By Abha Ranjan Khanna
Children love animals and they truly love their pets — and for good reason! Creatures large and small teach, delight and offer a special kind of companionship.
A small aquarium with many coloured fish, a little golden ball of a kitten, a shaggy large dog or a loud, squawky and noisy parrot. These fascinate little kids. They stimulate children’s imagination, exploration and spark their curiosity. They connect kids to nature.
As many as 90 percent of all kids live with a pet at some point during their childhood, says Gail F. Melson, PhD, professor emeritus of childhood development studies at Purdue University, in Indiana, and the author of Why the Wild Things Are: Animals in the Lives of Children. She states that having pets not only enhances responsibility and empathy, the presence of animals in the house fosters cognitive, adaptive, social and physical development. And there’s plenty of solid evidence to back that up.
The development of children’s strategies to begin to regulate emotions and behaviours is considered a key achievement within the early years in order to facilitate executive processes or habits of mind. Executive functions include concentration, motivation, memory, cognitive flexibility, problem solving, leadership and strategic planning.
The development of children’s learning methods/processes or habits of mind, where children combine knowledge, skills and attitude to become ready, willing and able to learn is explained, through the lens of a biological perspective, by research conducted by Beetz et al. (2012) and Heinrichs, Baumgartner, Kirschbaum, and Ehlert (Australia 2003), who propose that animal interactions increase levels of oxytocin (feel good hormone); reduce cortisol production (a stress hormone), thus reducing stress and anxiety; and promote increased social interactions.
Here are some reasons to bring home a pet today:
Feeling secure and comforted
Animals are a great source of comfort. Dr Melson asked a group of 3-5-year-old pet owners what they did when they felt sad, angry, afraid, or when they had a secret to share. Most spontaneously mentioned turning to their pets. “Kids who get support from their animal companions were rated by their parents as less anxious and withdrawn,” she says.
Learning nurturing and empathy
Dr Melson began studying the impact of pets in order to learn how human beings develop the ability to care for others. “Nurturing isn’t a quality that suddenly appears in adulthood when we need it,” she remarks. “People need a way to practice being caregivers when they’re young.”
“Nurturing animals is especially important for boys because taking care of an animal isn’t seen as a ‘girl’ thing like babysitting, playing house, or playing with dolls,” Dr Melson points out.
Pets help keep kids healthy
According to a study by Dennis Ownby, MD, a paediatrician and head of the allergy and immunology department of the Medical College of Georgia, in Augusta, having multiple pets actually decreases a child’s risk of developing certain allergies. His research tracked a group of 474 babies from birth to about age seven. He found that the children who were exposed to two or more dogs or cats as babies were less than half as likely to develop common allergies as kids who had no pets in the home.
No one knows for sure why this is the case, but Dr Ownby has a theory: “When a child plays with a dog or a cat, the animals usually lick him,” he says. “That lick transfers bacteria that live in animals’ mouths, and the exposure to the bacteria may change the way the child’s immune system responds to other allergens.”
Building family bonds
A pet is often the focus of activities that families do together. Everyone takes the dog for a walk, or shares in grooming and feeding him, or gets down on the floor and plays with him. There are calming benefits from simply watching a cat chase its tail or a fish swim in a tank!
Learning to read in early childhood
Reading aloud to cats, dogs or even cows reassures children as they benefit from the presence of non- judgemental pals. When asked, most kids struggling with reading preferred to read to their pets rather than to their peers or parents and other adults.
Researchers monitored their stress levels and found that kids were most relaxed around the animal and not around humans.
So, bring home a pet today!
(The writer is an occupational therapist.)