Growing up, many of us asked our parents for a pet at one time or another. I was no exception to this, in fact, I was probably a bit over-the-top when it came to asking my parents for a pet I could call my own. Although we always had pets in our home, I wanted to have one that was mine, one I could care for all by myself. Hearing of someone giving away kittens, or walking by someone selling puppies in a parking lot would always lead to heartache.
"Please, Mom?! I'll take really good care of her! Pleeeeeeease?!"
"No, Sarah. We have enough animals at home to care for," she'd say. And then I'd cry.
Whether my mom was right or wrong depends on who you ask, but research is beginning to say that animals have multiple positive effects on children. According to a recent New York Times article, researchers are beginning to focus on the effects pets have on the lives of children. With research focused on a wide range of issues--normal childhood development, childhood obesity, traumatized children, and autism--it's becoming clear that a furry friend can often have a positive impact on the lives of children in just about any circumstance.
Some of the benefits include:
Development of social skills--Particularly empathy and communication, both of which are of interest to those studying autism.
Calming effect--During high stress or traumatic situations, pets seem to provide comfort to children.
Fighting childhood obesity--Just as with adults, walking and playing with dogs provides physical activity that many children wouldn't get otherwise.
Building up the immune system--Early exposure to pets may have a protective effect, decreasing the chances of a child developing allergies.
Perhaps some of the strongest evidence of the positive relationship between children and pets comes from children themselves, many citing animals as sources of emotional support.
When I was 12 years old, my dreams of becoming a pet owner became a reality. Our 93-year-old neighbor liked to feed stray cats, and one happened to have a litter of kittens in her backyard. By the time my sister and I stumbled upon the litter, all were dead but two. I rushed them back to our house, urging my mother to let me keep them and nurse them back to health. With the two small, sick kittens in my arms, she reluctantly agreed. A few days later, despite my best efforts, one of the kittens died. The other, who I named Melissa, survived, learning to suck formula from a tiny bottle, following me everywhere, and sleeping curled up beside me in my bed.
My childhood home was quite dysfunctional. With two parents who abused drugs and alcohol and fought regularly, Melissa was absolutely the calming presence I needed to escape the problems at home. She became my best friend. She seemed to listen and really care when I was upset, and be happy when things were going well. I meowed to her and she meowed back. My life seemed easier because she was with me. She loved me unconditionally.
Melissa came into my life in 1993, and she still lives with my sister today. She'll turn 20 years old next year, and has survived a house fire, being lost for more than three months, several moves across state lines, and so much more. She's a special cat, and I'll be forever grateful to her for helping me get through some of the toughest times of my childhood.
For me, the positive effects pets have on children are more than clear.
A nearly 20-year-old Melissa, who provided so much comfort to me as a child.