The Benefits Of Pet Ownership For The Whole Family: Especially Now

Only wicked pet

A boy and his dog getty It’s been a long year of social distancing and isolation. And while vaccines are being distributed and schools are reopening, we are still a long way from “normal.” None of this has been easy on anyone, but research has found kids may be taking […]

It’s been a long year of social distancing and isolation. And while vaccines are being distributed and schools are reopening, we are still a long way from “normal.”

None of this has been easy on anyone, but research has found kids may be taking the biggest hit of all, with children and adolescents likely to experience the highest rates of depression and anxiety once isolation ends. While widely available access to clinical services and extensive early detection methods will be key to identifying and treating those most in need of help, there may be one thing parents can do now to help their kids through the remainder of this crisis.

Adopting a family pet.

The Impact of Isolation on Kids

It’s important to understand just how hard of a hit kids have taken over this last year. While parents have been struggling with job losses, financial strain, and having to take over educating and caring for their children 24/7 while also having to work, children have soaked in the stress of all of that. In addition to not being able to be with their friends or learn in-person from their teachers.

Their entire lives have been turned upside down, during the same life stages where structure and stability are often most crucial for healthy emotional development.

“The current Covid situation is stressful for everyone,” Leann Poston, MD, MBA, licensed pediatrician with Invigor Medical recently said. “Children suffer stress from lack of scheduling, an interruption to their education, an inability to socialize with their friends, concerns about their parents and family members, and for older children the constant onslaught from the media about the numbers of deaths, conspiracy theories, and politics.”

She said most pediatricians are well aware of the stress kids are taking on and the harm it could possibly inflict on them. Combined with the increased risk for anxiety disorders and clinical depression and decreased access to health care, many are advocating for ways to help kids get a sense of normalcy again.

Young kids are feeling this stress just like their older peers. Dawn Friedman is a counselor in private practice in Columbus Ohio with a post-graduate certification in infant and toddler mental health. She is also the voice behind the site You Are Not Your Mother.

She said that many of her clients are reporting concerns about their toddler and preschool-aged children when it comes to the crucial social development stages they may currently be missing out on.

“Those who are meeting up for social distance playdates tell me that their kids often run to hug their friends before parents can intervene,” she explained. “They’ve also told me about younger toddlers who cry if people come towards them. Those moms are worried that their littlest kids are forgetting how to socially interact with other children.”

She said that while she does believe children are resilient and capable of getting through this without suffering long-term problems, she still worries about how hard it may be to return to normal social interaction.

“I think we’ll see a spike in anxiety as we learn how to reconnect with each other when the quarantine ends,” Friedman explained.

How Pet Ownership Could Help

There is a wealth of research on the benefits of pet ownership for kids. Pets have been shown to help cultivate better prosocial behaviors in their tiny owners. They’ve been found to improve behavior and social development for toddlers and preschoolers. A systemic review of existing research found a positive correlation between improved self-esteem and reduced loneliness of children with pets. And the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychology has published a list of advantages of pet ownership for children, to include:

  • Developing responsible behavior
  • Teaching respect for living things
  • Providing comfort contact, love, loyalty and affection

“The right pet, particularly a gentle loving dog, can be a real friend to kids,” Friedman said. “Research shows that animals can build social-emotional skills by giving children—even toddlers—the opportunity to care and interact with a loving, responsive friend. Especially when parents are busy with work, pets can be witnesses to a child’s play, helping to ease loneliness.”

Poston agreed, adding that pet ownership can provide benefits for children of all ages, from the physical to the emotional. Not only do kids gain physical activity from walking and playing with dogs, she said, “Pets can help young children learn how to regulate their emotions and behavior.”

She further added that studies have shown pet ownership can help reduce stress levels among adult caregivers—stress that might otherwise trickle down and impact kids.

“We naturally talk and interact with the animals in our lives and kids are no exception,” Friedman said. “Having someone to cuddle, chat with and care for during social distancing can make a big difference in our well-being. And if that can’t be another human right now, why not the right pet?”

Things to Keep in Mind

Pets can provide a lot of benefits to the entire family. But that doesn’t necessarily mean every family should run right out and adopt the first pet they find.

“Pets take time, money, and attention,” Poston said. “It is a serious disservice to a living creature to get a pet to help fulfill you or your family’s needs without considering the needs of the pet and your ability to meet those needs.”

While pets can be great stress reducers, they could also increase stress for family members not fully prepared to care for them. And their needs will still exist even after isolation ends.

“There are many different breeds of dogs,” Poston said. “Consider your family situation, living environment, how long the pet may be unattended, allergies, and the needs of any young children before buying a pet.”

Friedman agreed.

“The pet needs to be the right one for their family,” she said. “I recommend rescues or ethical breeders over pet shops because then the family will get an opportunity to know the personality of the dog.”

She explained that most rescues work to socialize the dogs who come into their care and can screen out animals who would not be safe around children or other pets. They can also help you identify the right pet for your needs, and they’ll remain available to answer questions and provide guidance post-adoption.

“All three of our dogs were rescues and the people who placed them with us made sure they were a good fit,” Friedman said. “They got to know the dogs well because they were fostered in families, so they were able to share the animal’s personalities and challenges so we were well prepared when they came home to us.”

The key is finding a pet that feels like a good fit for the entire family, not just today, but in the hopefully not-so-distant future when life returns to normal as well.

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