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New research says pet-owning children
spend significantly more time at school



Children from pet-owning families spend significantly more time at school than those that don't have a pet, and have more stable immune systems, according to research released.

However, whilst the study has demonstrated the benefits of the close physical relationship that children have with their pets, it also highlighted the need to take greater precautions against the risk of zoonotic infections (those that can be passed from animals to people).

As part of the research, carried out by University of Warwick health psychologist Dr. June McNicholas, and Novartis Animal Health, 138 children were asked to spit into sample tubes.

Their saliva was then tested for levels of Immunoglobulin A (IgA), an antibody used as a general indicator of immune system function. At the same time, school absenteeism data was collected for all children in the study. Dr. McNicholas said: "Pet ownership was significantly associated with better school attendance rates. This was apparent across all classes, but was most pronounced in the lower school (classes 1-3, age groups 5-8).

Here, the pet owners benefited from up to 18 extra half days schooling per annum than their non pet owning counterparts." Tests of immune function also demonstrated surprising results. Levels of IgA outside an expected 'normal' range suggest that the immune system is being actively challenged by infection (too high), or is vulnerable to infection (too low).

Results of this study showed that IgA levels amongst pet owners were significantly less variable from the normal range.

In other words, their immune function was more stable, and indicates that these children were better able to fend off illness. But before parents start tripping over each other in a mad rush for the pet store, a word of caution. Whilst pets may help strengthen our immune systems, they can also transmit zoonotic infections which we may not be able to fight off.

Dr. McNicholas explained: "Toxocara canis, or roundworm, is the principal risk in the UK. This parasite is 'caught' by humans when they accidentally ingest roundworm eggs shed by an infected dog, and can cause anything from a stomach-ache to eye damage." The study demonstrated the intensely close physical relationship between pets and children. Whilst this may be partly responsible for the some of the health benefits noted in the test group, it also places them at greater risk of accidentally ingesting roundworm eggs.

Answers

When asked about when the child looked for the company of the pet, the answers were as follows: 40% went to their pet if they felt bored ,32% went to their pet of they felt scared (most dogs), 53% had their pet with them when watching TV/videos, 37% had their pet with them when they were reading/doing homework, 28% looked for their pet when they had had an argument with the family, 40% looked to their pet if they were upset, 85% went to their pet as a playmate, 34% went to their pet if they were tired, 33% went to their pet if they felt poorly.

Handling Less than 4% of children do not handle their pet in some way. 98% cuddle their pet 96% stroke their pet 80% kiss their pet

Food sharing When asked if the children ever shared food with the pet, the answers were as follows: 38% shared snacks, crisps etc with their pets when watching TV. 28% shared food with their pets if they thought they weren't being seen to do so, 21% let their pets lick their fingers after sharing food, 16% shared food with their pets at mealtimes / at table.

Playing 97% of children reported playing with their pets. 38% of children played with or hid their pet in their bed. 21.1% of children played dressing up with their pet. 19% played pretend picnic and parties with their pet. 18% played 'animal hospitals' with their pet as patient 11% played pushing the pet in a pram (mainly girls).

When asked HONESTLY how often they thought their children washed their hands after handling pets, the survey respondents answered: 36% said probably not as often as he/she should, 31.5% said 'definitely not often', 'rarely' or 'never'’, 18% said most times, 7.6% said every time.

Benefits

Dr. McNicholas concluded: "Overall, the benefits of pet ownership for children seem to far outweigh any risk. Nevertheless, there remains the real threat of a roundworm infection. It's compounded by the fact that so much of the contact between pets and children happens 'when your back's turned'. Given that 38% of children play with their pet in bed, flea control should also be high on the list of priorities! Luckily, parents can protect against both these hazards with one of the monthly veterinary treatments like Program Plus. This will allow their children to enjoy the many rewards of pet ownership, without taking the risk."

Roundworm is the primary zoonotic risk from pet dogs in the UK. · In the USA, 2.8% of the population test antibody positive to roundworm, demonstrating that they have been exposed to the parasite at some time in their lives. · A similar rate of infection could be expected in the UK. · In most cases, symptoms may be nothing worse than a stomach ache. This is a notoriously unspecific symptom, and it is therefore impossible to estimate just how many are caused as a result of exposure to roundworm. · In the UK, latest figures suggest that 12 people a year will suffer damage to their eyesight as a result of exposure.

For further details please contact:

Dr June McNicholas, 024 7652 3759 Dept of Psychology, University of Warwick; Peter Dunn, Press Officer, University of Warwick, Tel: 024 76 523708 Email: p.j.dunnwarwick.ac.uk;Arlo Guthrie, spokesman for Novartis Animal Health 020 7385 2111 07770 221333.