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From placenta to play centre

Of pets and children

Fred was a dog best described as mongrel. I think even he would have had difficulty picking his parents out in a line-up.

My parents first acquired Fred when they were working in the north of Western Australia, tracking and studying dingoes. They tell stories about trawling through the bush in their ute, when, with a yelp, Fred would spring off the back in hot pursuit of a kangaroo.

Much like primary school children playing kiss-chasey, I doubt Fred would have known exactly what to do if he caught one.

Fred provided my parents with great company through the triumphs and tragedy of their early marriage, and, by the time they had children, there was no doubt that he was an integral member of the family (albeit a very hairy one!).

When I was about 8-years-old, Fred grew quite ill, and it was clear that his life had become rather miserable. I still remember the day that he was to be put down. It was a huge learning experience to know that this hairy, slobbering friend, who just loved to be patted (and who we just loved to pat!), would not be there when we came home from school.

About a year later, our family picked up a playful blue heeler, who was quickly dubbed Waggy (lesson: don’t ask 9-year-olds to name animals). Oh, how we loved Waggy. He was the greatest of companions, equally adept at fetching our ‘6 and out’ cricket balls, as loitering by our ankles waiting to be cuddled.


I’ll stop the pet chronology there before I move too far into ‘creepy pet owner’ territory (you’re lucky I spared you the stories of Mosey, the neurotic kelpie), but I think you see where I’m going.

An astonishing 63% of households in Australia keep some form of animal as a pet (this figure doesn’t include hairy teenagers/husbands). This means that pet owners are, by a fair margin, the norm rather than the exception.

The advantages and disadvantages of owning a pet are reasonably obvious. On one hand, pets can provide wonderful companionship, but on the other hand, they cost a lot of money, require considerable time, and have a knack for hunting down your most expensive pair of shoes and chewing them to smithereens.

But over the past couple of decades, there has been considerable interest in whether pets may have additional benefits or drawbacks for humans, particularly with regards to health.

Children and pets can be a great mix. Flickr/Beauty of Africa

The first significant study in this area was conducted in 1980, which examined survival rates among heart-attack victims. Of the 92 heart-attack victims studied, 28% of pet-owners survived for at least a year, compared to only 6% of non-pet owners. This is quite a stunning finding, and leads me to think that none of the pet-owners had their shoes chewed in their year of recovery.

This study generated a flurry of interest into whether caressing dogs and cats, watching tropical fish in an aquarium, and even stroking a boa-constrictor, may convey health benefits. (The answer is yes to every one of these, particularly if you have high blood pressure). Harold Herzog has produced a nice review of these studies.

My favourite study in this area, and perhaps the most methodologically rigours, was a clinical trial that studied the effects of pet-ownership on 48 stockbrokers with high blood pressure. Once enrolled in the trial, half of the stockbrokers were promptly assigned a pet cat or dog, and the other half were given no pet.

Six-months later the stockbrokers came into the laboratory for further testing, where the experimenters put them in a stressful situation (asking them to give an impromptu speech). The stockbrokers who had spent 6-months with a pet showed a lower increase in blood pressure during the stressful situation (a good thing!) than those who weren’t assigned a pet. Another stunning finding.

But before we rush out and buy a box of kittens for Wall St, I’m afraid to say that for every positive finding in this area, there are other studies finding no health benefits of pet-ownership, or even worse: a detrimental effect.

Take a 2010 study, which found that, far from nurturing heart-attack victims back to health, pets were actually somewhat of a jinx; pet-owners were more likely than non-pet-owners to experience death or readmission to a cardiac hospital within a year of suffering their heart attack (22% vs 14%).

And this for dog-people everywhere: cat ownership provided the strongest association with death or readmission, with 27% not fairing too well in the year after their heart-attack.

Clearly, the science regarding adult health is far from settled, and I urge you to take these findings with a pinch of salt. The household tabby shouldn’t be feeling too nervous on the back of these results.

Child development and pets

So what about child development? Do pets play a role in a child’s cognitive and emotional development?

On the face of it, there is a certain logic to the idea that children would benefits from pets. Pets can provide companionship, teach responsibility, and help children live active lives; few would argue that these are bad things.

I went searching for studies in this area, and was surprised to find that only a few have been conducted.

Perhaps the largest was a Croatian study, which examined the behaviours of 826 primary school-aged children. Children who had a pet at home were more likely than non-pet owners to display empathic and prosocial (altruistic) behaviours at school. Interestingly, it was those children who reported being closely ‘attached’ to their pet, who were the most altruistic at school.

While these findings appear to indicate that it’s the child’s relationship with the pet that’s the important element, there is a ‘chicken and egg’ problem here. Were children more likely to be attached to their pet because they were already empathic, or was it the attachment that led to their empathy?

Another study - this time in Canada - asked 387 adults whether they owned a pet during their childhood. The adults also completed a questionnaire that measured their level of empathy during everyday situations. Just like the Croatian study, the adults who owned a pet during childhood had higher levels of empathy.

But here’s the kicker: Adults who owned a dog during childhood were more empathic in adulthood than those who owned a cat. Another one for the dog-owners!

Of course, I must emphasise that these studies are far from conclusive. Indeed, I think that the most interesting thing about this research is the gaping lack of it! Nevertheless, these studies will provide some nice tongue-in-cheek ammunition for the next cat-owner I meet.

Abbey is my current hairy housemate. She’s a cross between a corgi and a blue heeler - yes, the physics of her conception are truly mind-boggling - and bears a striking resemblance to a barrel on stilts. I’m not too sure whether she’s had a positive effect on my blood pressure (she’s the shoe-chomping culprit) and I doubt that my empathy has increased much since she entered my life (see previous parentheses), but she’s certainly a great friend.

If you’d like to share your own experiences with children and animals, please click on the comments button and start writing!

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