NEW RESEARCH reveals that interaction with pets can positively influence children's health, emotional development and schooling. These findings are among scientific research and practical examples to be presented at an international conference hosted by the Society for Companion Animal Studies, (SCAS) in Leicester last week.
Dr June McNicholas, health psychologist and senior research fellow at the University of Warwick, will present the findings of her research showing that exposure to cats and/or dogs in the first year of life reduce subsequent risks of allergic sensitisation during childhood and that exposure to pets is associated with a significantly reduced risk of asthma.
Dr McNicolas' also provides an insight into how children and pets interact. Her survey of 338 children found that:
40% sought out their pet if they were upset
40% looked for their pet if they were bored
85% regard their pets as a playmate
53% watched TV or videos with their pet
The conference included presentations by other leading experts including Marleen Bouckaert, chairman of Belgian animal assisted therapy charity, CHAKKA, and Steve Goody, director of companion animal welfare at the Blue Cross.
Sue Dawson, a researcher at Manchester Metropolitan University, (MMU) is to presented a creative 'detraumatisation' project developed in post-war Bosnia Hercegovina. The project shows that developing an empathy towards animals enhances the emotional health of children who have experienced trauma.
Educational benefits of pets for children
Marleen Bouckaert presented an overview of an innovative Belgian schools programme that promotes positive interaction between children and dogs. Her presentation highlights the importance of teaching children how to build positive relationships with dogs. The programme is a highly-regarded case study illustrating how it is possible to encourage a high standard of social behaviour and instill important life values in children.
Conversely, Steve Goody, director of companion animal welfare at The Blue Cross, investigates how the increasingly anti-pet policies of schools deprives children of a vitally important learning process that may affect their emotional and physical health in the future.
Other research presented at the conference indicates that recent scientific studies have shown that keeping pets, particularly during a childs first year, reduces the risk of wheezing and allergic reactions to many allergens, not all of them usually associated with animals.
This protection is more noticeable in children whose parents have no history of asthma, and was greater in those households where there were two or more dogs or cats. As far as wheezing goes, one study showed that there was not much advantage in having dogs later in a childs life.
The reputation of cats has been battered by recent research on toxoplasmosis, and they are notorious for occasionally causing cat scratch fever. Fortunately, the detailed work of US investigators has included cats with dogs in their favourable report. An editorial in the Journal of the American Medical Association by Dr Thomas Platts-Mills relates the US studies to work done in Europe, which shows a reduction in the incidence of asthma in children brought up with farm animals, possibly as this involves exposure to bacterial endotoxins early in life.
Elizabeth Ormerod, chairman of SCAS, said:
"For many years, the valuable role of pets in children's development has been recognised. But recently, the positive health, educational and therapeutic benefits of pets have been scientifically investigated and acknowledged.
"Children tend to form very special attachments to companion animals. Through learning to care for and understand animals, children develop greater empathy for other people, which helps to improve human and animal welfare in society."
The conference coincides with the launch of a new SCAS publication 'Children and Pets: A guide for parents, teachers and therapists'. The guide provides best practice advice on key issues for readers. Drawing on current research, it discusses the influence of pets on children's development and health, how to be a responsible pet owner, selecting the right pet and keeping pets at school.
The SCAS was set up in 1979 by a group of doctors, social workers and veterinary surgeons from Britain and the USA to promote interest in human-companion animal relationships. Since inception, SCAS has progressed the study and awareness of this relationship considerably, providing an information source and publishing literature on recent findings.