Family Pets Can Make Your Child Healthier

This content has been clinically reviewed by Deirdre Stewart, M.D.

Kids and pets go together like peanut butter and jelly. But many new parents put off getting a dog or cat because of worries about allergies and asthma, as well as other safety concerns.

Worry not though, because studies suggest that a family pet may actually be good for your child's health. 

Recent research has indicated that newborns who live with dogs or cats are less likely to develop pet allergies and asthma when they get older. Being around pets may also lower an infant’s risk of coughs and sniffles during the first year of life.

This research comes from a study published in JAMA Pediatrics in 2015 that showed that children who had a dog in the house in the first year of life were 13 percent less likely to develop asthma by the time they were 6 years old than those from dog-free homes. Additional studies have similar findings regarding newborn exposure to dogs and feline friends in reducing asthma risk.

More good news: the study—which used data from a Swedish registry of more than 1 million children—also found that children growing up on farms with animals had a 50 percent reduction in their risk of asthma at school age.

A recent review article that examined a large number of studies also found evidence that in newborns with no family history of allergy, those exposed to dogs in infancy may be less likely to develop allergies down the road.

The key here, though, is timing—household pets had to be under the same roof while the child was an infant for the reduced risk of allergies and asthma.

 

How Family Pets Help Keep Kids Well

So what is about our furry family members that improve the health of our kids? 

Research suggests that it’s the exposure to pet dander and microbes brought in by furry pets from the outdoors that helps strengthen newborns’ immune systems, making them less susceptible to allergies and asthma when they get older. Researchers theorize that the same process may help these children stave off colds better than other kids.

These results are in line with the so-called hygiene hypothesis, which states that children who grow up in too-clean environments may develop hypersensitive immune systems that make them prone to allergies, asthma and other illnesses.

So, Should You Get Your Child a Pet?

Even if you’re not worried about allergies or asthma you may still wonder if it's time for a family pet.

Research on human-animal interaction is a relatively new field for developmental scientists seeking to understand the role pets play in children’s health and well-being. But anecdotal research has shown that pets offer kids strong emotional support, and living with pets can help children develop empathy and other emotional skills.

Pets also play a role in reducing stress. A small study by the team at Bassett Medical Center in New York found that just 12 percent of children with pet dogs tested positive for clinical anxiety compared to 21 percent of children without a dog.

The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry says taking care of a pet can help also help foster stronger social skills in kids. Just be sure to keep these guidelines in mind before committing to an animal:

  • Since very young children (under the age of 3-4 years) do not have the maturity to control their aggressive and angry impulses, they should be monitored with pets at all times.
  • Young children (under 10 years) are typically unable to care for a large animal, a cat or a dog, on their own.
  • Parents should always oversee the pet's care, even if they believe their child is old enough for the responsibility.
  • Children should be reminded in a gentle, non-scolding way, that animals, like people, need food, water, exercise and affection.
  • Parents serve as role models. Children learn responsible pet ownership by observing their parents' behavior.

It's also important to teach children that just because their pet is friendly, it doesn't mean that all animals are. They should always ask an adult before touching someone else's pet. To help protect your family's health, and the health of your pet, also make sure you keep all your pets' vaccines up-to-date.

For kids under age 5, experts say to steer clear of these pets, which can bite, trigger allergies or spread disease and infection:

  • Reptiles (turtles, snakes, lizards, iguanas)
  • Rodents (hamsters, gerbils, guinea pigs, chinchillas, hedgehogs, prairie dogs, mice, rats)
  • Amphibians (frogs, toads, salamanders)
  • Ferrets
  • Baby poultry (chicks, ducklings, goslings, turkeys)
  • Monkeys

Therapy Pets

Pets can also offer much-needed comfort for children in the hospital. 

If your child is being admitted to the hospital for an illness, injury or procedure, ask if the hospital offers any type of pet therapy program. 

At Children's Healthcare of Atlanta, as part of our family services, we offer Canines for Kids, a program that provides furry, four-legged support for the children in our care. Our pet therapy dogs help ease anxiety and promote quicker recovery times for kids, as well as provide much-needed snuggles to help them get well.

This content is general information and is not specific medical advice. Always consult with a doctor or healthcare provider if you have any questions or concerns about the health of a child. In case of an urgent concern or emergency, call 911 or go to the nearest emergency department right away. Some physicians and affiliated healthcare professionals on Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta team are independent providers and are not our employees.