Dogs follow human communication cues.
Childhood mental illness and obesity are significant public health concerns in the US. Since they start in childhood, preventive and early intervention approaches are needed.
Pet dogs have been linked with health benefits for adults, as promoted by the US Public Health Service (USPHS).
In Australia and the UK, dog ownership has been linked with increased physical activity among children aged 5-12 years and healthier body mass index (BMI) in those aged 5-6 years, due to walking and active play.
Such data is lacking in the US, so more evidence is needed to support pet ownership as a health strategy.
How can pets help mental health?
Pets can stimulate conversation, creating an ice-breaking effect that alleviates social anxiety. Dogs also tend to follow human communicative cues, which could help in emotional development.
Children aged 7-8 years have previously ranked pets higher than humans as providers of comfort and self-esteem, and as confidants.
Animal-assisted therapy (AAT) with dogs reduces anxiety and arousal, alleviates separation anxiety and enhances attachment in children, thereby improving mental health and reducing developmental disorders.
Promoting children’s behavioral and emotional competence can help prevent mental, emotional and behavioral disorders during adulthood.
If exposure to pet dogs during childhood can help achieve these goals, positive child-dog interactions could prevent potential problems from developing during adolescence or later life.
However, there is little evidence for primary care providers to use when counseling parents regarding the benefits of pet dogs for young children.
Can a dog help improve BMI and anxiety?
In the current study, researchers from Bassett Medical Center in New York investigated the hypothesis that pet dogs are positively associated with healthy weight and mental health among children.
The study looked at 643 children aged 4-10 years, with an average age of 6.7 years, over an 18-month period in a pediatric primary care setting. Of these, 45% were female, 56% were privately insured and 58% had pet dogs in the home.
Before an annual visit, parents completed a health risk screener online, focusing on child BMI, physical activity, screen time, mental health and pet ownership.
Confounders included the fact that pet-owning families may differ from those without pets, for example in socioeconomic environment, a known social determinant of health; family income has been significantly associated with adolescent mental health, so the researchers adjusted for this factor.
Less stress for children with dogs
No difference was found between children with and without a pet dog regarding BMI, screen time or physical activity.
But among the 58% of children with a dog in the home, 12% tested positive on a screening test for anxiety, compared with 21% of children who did not have a pet dog.
A strength of the study is that it was carried out in a real-world setting and was based on children in preventive care, a far larger and more inclusive group than in previous studies, which focused on children with mental and developmental disorders.
Parental reporting could be a limitation, although statistics have shown high concordance between actual mental health issues and what parents say.
The researchers suggest:
“Interacting with a friendly dog also reduces cortisol levels, most likely through oxytocin release, which lessens physiologic responses to stress. These hormonal effects may underlie the observed emotional and behavioral benefits of animal-assisted therapy and pet dogs.”