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Family pets make for healthy kids

CHILDREN WHO own family pets are less likely to take time off from school through illness, according to a new scientific study.

Researchers examined 256 children, aged five to 11, from three schools in England and Scotland and found that those who had a family pet were almost 20% less likely to be off sick.

Dr June McNicholas, one of the world’s experts on relationships between human and animals, said that household pets helped to improve a child’s immune system as well as offering important psychological benefits.

Children in reception year and year one had an 18% and 13% better attendance record respectively than non-pet-owning children. In the five to seven age group pet- owning children attended school for an additional three weeks.

"Recent medical research has shown that interaction with animals can have incredibly beneficial effects on children’s health, such as reducing the risk of developing allergies and asthma in later life," said Dr McNicholas, who announced the findings last week at the International Conference on Human-Animal Interactions in Glasgow.

"We were amazed by the results that we uncovered which clearly indicate that children from pet-owning families have fewer days off school."

The researchers studied children at one school in Scotland, one in the Midlands and one in the south of England. The current research follows on from other surveys and studies carried out over the past two decades that indicate that pets are good for human beings’ health.

"If children are exposed to pet allergens, their immune system tends to perform better. The presence of a happy, healthy, well cared-for pet can actually act as one of the things that you can expose their developing immune systems to," Dr McNicholas added.

Dr McNicholas, a former lecturer at the University of Warwick who is now based in the Highlands, also emphasised the importance of pet ownership on a child’s happiness: "Children do derive a great deal of psychological support from their pets. The relationship between children and pets improves psychological well-being and the psychological state has an influence on the physical state."

Dr McNicholas said children with physical disabilities who had companion animals such as guide dogs showed even greater health improvements. She added that there was no significant difference between cats and dogs when it came to children’s health.

"We need a much bigger sample to determine that but I would say cats might have the edge over dogs as far as better immune functioning is concerned. One of the most important factors when it comes to pets being good for children is how well the pet fits with the family lifestyle."