17 April 2016

RESEARCH - Pet Dogs May Help Anxiety in Children

According to the Anxiety Association of America, anxiety disorders affect one in eight children.

A recent study, Pet Dogs and Children’s Health: Opportunities for Chronic Disease Prevention?, suggests that children living with a pet dog seem less likely to suffer from anxiety.

Researchers in New York enrolled 643 children with a mean age of seven at a pediatric primary care clinic when they came for their annual check-ups.

Among the 58% of children with a dog in the home, 12% tested positive on a screening test for potential anxiety, compared with 21% of children who did not have a pet dog.

“Having a pet dog in the home was associated with a decreased probability of childhood anxiety,” Dr. Anne Gadomski of the Bassett Medical Center and her co-authors wrote. “Future studies need to establish whether this relationship is causal and, if so, how pet dogs alleviate childhood anxiety.”

The researchers suggested pet dogs could reduce childhood anxiety, particularly social and separation anxiety, by a variety of means:
  • A pet dog can stimulate conversation, an ice-breaking effect that can alleviate social anxiety.
  • Companionship with a pet can alleviate separation anxiety and strengthen attachment.
  • Social interaction of humans and dogs may also lead to increased oxytocin and decreased cortisol levels which weaken the stress response.
  • More opportunities to play, explore and increase physical activity.

Children’s Mental Health Ontario defines a number of anxiety disorders including separation anxiety disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, social phobia, obsessive-compulsive disorder, panic disorder, post-traumatic stress, and selective mutism. Children and teens can have more than one type of anxiety disorder at the same time.

While there have been many studies that confirm the health benefits for adults who have pets, this study adds to a smaller body of data related to the impact of pets on young children.

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