BBC Future, a publication of the British Broadcasting Corporation, looks for answers to the issues facing the world in science.
According to their webpage, "In a complex, fast-paced world of soundbites, knee-jerk opinions and information overload, BBC Future provides something different: a home for slowing down, delving deep and shifting perspectives. Through evidence-based analysis, original thinking, and powerful storytelling, we shine a light on the hidden ways that the world is changing – and provide solutions for how to navigate it."
For this week's story on innovation, we turn to BBC Future's exploration of the positive impact of pets on children.
How pets give your kids a brain boost (BBC Future)
Many parents intuitively feel that looking after an animal can offer children valuable lessons about caregiving, responsibility and empathy. "It's really important, especially for young kids, to learn that someone's perspective might be different from their own," says Megan Mueller, associate professor of human-animal interaction at Tufts University, US. "That's an easier lesson to learn, perhaps, with an animal than it is with, say, a sibling or a peer."
But claims about the beneficial impacts of pets on children go further, suggesting that pets can influence children's social skills, physical health, and even cognitive development, and that keeping them is associated with higher levels of empathy. For children with autism and their families, pet care may help reduce stress and create opportunities to form supportive bonds.
Other research shows that children gain from animals in-the-moment, too. In one pair of studies, children made fewer errors on an object categorization task and needed fewer prompts in a memory task when there was a dog in the room. Research has even found that, for adults at least, the simple act of viewing our pets as family members improves our wellbeing – though headlines touting the wide-ranging benefits of pet ownership are not without criticism, since people often believe that their pets improve their health and happiness, even when objective measures don't show any difference.
So, are pets truly at the root of all these benefits, or do we just think they are? Hayley Christian, associate professor at the School of Population and Global Health at the University of Western Australia in Perth, is one of the researchers attempting to unravel cause from effect. Using data from a longitudinal study of 4,000 children at ages five and seven, Christian and colleagues discovered that pet ownership was associated with fewer peer problems and more prosocial behavior. In separate research they found that children aged 2 to 5 with a family dog were more active, spent less time on screens, and slept more on average, than those without a pet.
Then, in a study published last year, they put these two pieces of the puzzle together. After controlling for factors such as socio-economic status, the researchers saw that children who regularly engaged in dog-related physical activity had better developmental outcomes. "We can actually say that children having pets and interacting with them over time in early childhood does seem to cause these added benefits in terms of their social-emotional development," says Christian, who is also a senior research fellow at the Telethon Kids Institute.
That's not to say that every family should get a pet – or every child with a dog is better off than those without. Behavioral issues, complex medical needs and the financial burden of caring for an animal can all make life with a pet less than rosy. Families living in housing that is not pet-friendly face further barriers. "I don't think we're ever going to get to the point where we recommend that everyone with a kid gets a dog," says Mueller.
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