Pets are also good preventive medicine for healthy children to help them avoid developing allergies, increasing weight, or becoming social outcasts. Pets can also teach children empathy and compassion.
"Children in dog-owning families have more traditional values, better academic achievement, and greater respect for their parents," said Elizabeth Omerod, companion animal veterinary surgeon, and member of the Pet Health Council in London. "I often witness positive attitudinal changes in young people following the introduction of animals to their lives."
This isn't just anecdotal hearsay; it's the subject of numerous medical studies conducted around the world, many of which are found at the Delta Society.
- A Swedish study found that pet exposure during the first year of life was associated with a lower prevalence of allergic rhinitis and asthma in children ages 7 to 13 years old.
- A large-scale survey of 11,000 Australians, Chinese, and Germans found that pet owners made up to 20 percent fewer annual visits to the doctor than non-pet owners.
- A study of 256 children, ages 5 to 11 years, in three schools in England and Scotland found that kids with pets had fewer sick days.
- A study of 100 children younger than 13 years who owned cats found that more than 80 percent said they got along better with family and friends.
- Studies have linked family ownership of a pet with high self-esteem in young children and greater cognitive development.
- Children with pets at home score significantly higher on empathy and pro-social scales than non-pet owners.
Stress busters on a leash
What is it about animals that makes them so special around children? Experts overwhelmingly zone in on their ability to decrease stress because they offer love and affection unconditionally.
In one survey, 70 percent of families reported an increase in family happiness and fun after they acquired a pet. Also, the presence of a dog during a child's physical examination or dental treatment has been found to decrease the child's stress and anxiety.
"When under stress, our chemical make-up changes, and a multitude of stress hormones are introduced in the body," said Caryn Sabes Hacker, a psychotherapist with more than 25 years of experience with children, and author of "A Bully Grows Up: Erik Meets the Wizard."
"Ultimately, these hormones cause inflammation in our cells. Petting an animal, hearing its soft breathing, feeling its heart beat, looking into its sweet eyes, knowing that the pet needs us and that we need the pet, creates feelings of love and a corresponding influx of chemicals from the brain that are calming and comforting and create a sense of well-being and happiness," she said.
Families across the world have harnessed one of the most powerful medicines of all -- unconditional love from a furry, four-legged healthcare worker who is on-call 24 hours a day and doesn't require a paycheck.