You might find it hard to believe when you’re running around the park after your pooch or cleaning up the latest vase it broke, but having a dog in the home can significantly reduce the likelihood that your kids will experience stress and anxiety, a new study has found.
Research conducted by the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) tracked 643 children aged between 4 and 10 over the course of 18 months, with parents quizzed about their kids’ body mass index (BMI), physical activity, screen time, and mental health. While the study found no difference in BMI, screen time, or amount of physical activity between the kids with dogs and the kids without dogs, there was a noticeable variation in their levels of anxiety.
Of the 58 percent of kids who did have a dog at home, 12 percent tested positive for stress and anxiety, according to a standardised screening test called the Screen for Child Anxiety and Related Disorders (SCARED). But when the dogless children were tested, this figure jumped to 21 percent of them testing positive on the anxiety screening test.
“Pet dogs could reduce childhood anxiety, particularly social and separation anxiety, by various mechanisms,” the researchers report. “A pet dog can stimulate conversation – an ice-breaking effect that can alleviate social anxiety via a social catalyst effect. Companionship with a pet can alleviate separation anxiety and strengthen attachment.”
There’s much to commend the research: it was carried out in a real-world setting and used a much broader sample of young people than previous studies have managed. But the fact that it relied on parental reports and used an overwhelmingly white sample group means it’s not proof of a link yet – researchers will need to follow more children more closely for a longer period of time to establish a cause-and-effect.
Oxytocin, a hormone known to aid social bonding and reduce anxiety, could also have a part to play, the study suggests:
“Social interaction of humans and dogs may also lead to increased oxytocin levels in both the human and the dog. Interacting with a friendly dog also reduces cortisol levels most likely through oxytocin release, which attenuates physiologic responses to stress.”
With a broad range of issues starting in childhood – from obesity to mental health problems – finding ways to make our formative years less stressful is an important area of research.
As Yvette Brazier from Medical News Today notes, previous studies have established that children around the age of 7 or 8 rank pets higher than human beings as providers of comfort and self-esteem. And studies from the UK and Australia have found links between dog ownership and increased physical activity and healthier BMI in children, though this most recent study didn’t find such a correlation.
The CDC researchers are calling for more research into our early relationships with our pets to figure out why this link between reduced childhood stress levels and dog ownership could exist. But if you want to foster a calm and happy atmosphere at home (for your kids, at least – you’ll still have to clean up after everyone) bringing a dog into your family could be one way of achieving it.