Is Your Child Stressed? Get Them A Dog

We tend to associate stress with adult responsibilities, such as work deadlines or raising a family. However, children can feel stressed too, and long-term stress can have negative effects on their health just as it does on that of adults. New research investigates the effect of having a pet on how children experience stress.
[boy with dog]
New research suggests that pet dogs can help to lower stress levels in children.

A small amount of stress can be a powerful motivator, driving us to complete tasks and perform better at work. Too much stress, however, is known to have a negative effect not only on our mental health but also on our physical wellness.

The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) warn that prolonged stress can lead to severe mental health issues such as depression and anxiety, as well as to physical health problems including heart disease and diabetes.

Children are no strangers to stress, either. One of the surveys carried out by the American Psychological Association found that nearly a third of the children interviewed had experienced a stress-associated physical symptom in the previous month, whether it was trouble falling asleep, headaches, or stomach aches.

How we respond to stress is, of course, an individual matter. The NIMH explain that some people can deal with stress more effectively than others, and different people use different coping mechanisms.

Some people turn to animals for social support. Studies have shown that pets help adults to calm down and therefore reduce stress, but does the same go for children?

Researchers from the University of Florida (UF) in Gainesville set out to investigate. Their team was led by Darlene Kertes, assistant professor in the psychology department of UF’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.

The findings were published in the journal Social Development.

Do pets provide children with emotional support?

The study included approximately 100 families with children who owned a pet. The participants totaled 101 children aged between 7 and 12. To test the children’s stress levels, the researchers asked them to complete two tasks: public speaking and mental arithmetic.

These tasks are known to cause stress and raise the children’s levels of cortisol, which is a steroid hormone secreted by the adrenal glands and helps the body to respond to stressful or dangerous situations. Also known as the “stress hormone,” cortisol is a marker for stress, meaning that the more stressed we are, the higher are the levels of cortisol in our bodies.

For this study, researchers randomly assigned the children to complete the stressful tasks. They had either their dog present, their parent present, or no one there to support them.

To assess their cortisol levels, Kertes and team collected saliva samples from the participants before and after completing their task.

Interacting with their dog makes children feel less stressed

The results revealed that the children’s stress levels did vary depending on the kind of social support they received, but also on how much they engaged with their pet. The study’s author explains the results:

“Children who actively solicited their dogs to come and be pet or stroked had lower cortisol levels compared to children who engaged their dogs less. When dogs hovered around or approached children on their own, however, children’s cortisol tended to be higher.”

Darlene Kertes

The results shown by the cortisol tests were also backed by children’s accounts. “Children who had their pet dog with them reported feeling less stressed compared to having a parent for social support or having no social support,” Kertes says.

She also points out that how we cope with stress as children set the stage for how we cope with stressful situations as adults.

“Middle childhood is a time when children’s social support figures are expanding beyond their parents, but their emotional and biological capacities to deal with stress are still maturing. Because we know that learning to deal with stress in childhood has lifelong consequences for emotional health and well-being, we need to better understand what works to buffer those stress responses early in life.”

Darlene Kertes

Sharing A Bed With Your Pet Could Help You Sleep

Do you allow your pet to snuggle up with you in bed? If not, you might want to reconsider; new research finds that, for most people, the presence of a pet in the bedroom could benefit sleep.
[A dog sleeping on its owners bed]
Letting your four-legged companion sleep on the bed could help you sleep, according to new research.

Lead author Dr. Lois Krahn, of Mayo Clinic’s Center for Sleep Medicine in Scottsdale, AZ, and colleagues publish their findings in Mayo Clinic Proceedings.

It goes without saying that the US is a nation of animal lovers; almost 65% of American households own a pet, the most common companions being dogs and cats.

There have been numerous studies hailing the benefits of pet ownership. A recent study, for example, found that children with pet dogs experience less stress.

But according to Dr. Krahn and colleagues, there is limited quality research on how the presence of a pet in the bedroom may impact an owner’s sleep.

Pets in the bedroom may offer sense of security, relaxation

To address this research gap, the team surveyed 150 patients at the Center for Sleep Medicine, of whom 74 reported owning at least one pet – mostly dogs and cats.

The researchers gathered various information, including whether they allowed their pet to sleep in the bedroom and on the bed, and whether their pet is disruptive to their sleep.

Around 56% of pet owners reported allowing their pets to sleep in the bedroom or the bed.

Disruptive behaviors – including wandering, whimpering and snoring – were reported by 20% of owners who allowed their pet to sleep close by.

However, 41% of owners said their pets were not disruptive, with some – particularly individuals who were single – saying their presence even helped them sleep by providing security, companionship or relaxation.

One woman described her two small dogs as “bed warmers,” while another woman described her cat as “soothing” when it slept on her bed. A single 64-year-old woman said she felt more content when her dog slept under the covers by her feet.

“The value of these experiences, although poorly understood, cannot be dismissed because sleep is dependent on a state of physical and mental relaxation,” say the authors.

These findings may help doctors counsel patients with sleep problems, according to the researchers:

“Health care professionals working with patients with sleep concerns should inquire about the home sleep environment, and companion animals specifically, to help them find solutions and optimize their sleep.”

The authors note some limitations to their study. For example, they did not gather data assessing whether individuals being treated for sleep disorders – such as sleep apnea – find a pet sleeping nearby beneficial or more disruptive.

Additionally, the team notes there may have been some response bias from pet owners. “Respondents appeared eager to disclose whether they owned a companion animal and where it slept but seemed more reluctant to reveal any undesirable consequences,” they explain. “This response bias may have resulted in these data underreporting the frequency of disrupted sleep.”

Still, the researchers conclude further research investigating how having pets in the bedroom impacts a person’s sleep is warranted.