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

Children With Pets Have Less Stress

A pet dog may protect your child from childhood anxiety, according to research published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
[dog and girl]
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.”

Stress In Domestic Cats: New Review Discusses Causes And Management

Pet cats can suffer from stress triggered by a variety of events and situations, including conflicts with other cats and changes to routine. While cats can adapt, sometimes the stress can be too much, with negative effects on their health.
cat hiding
When stressed, cats may stop exploring and hide away for long periods of time.
Image credit: Marta Amat, Autonomous University of Barcelona

Writing in the Journal of Feline Medicine and Surgery, a group of veterinarians from the Autonomous University of Barcelona, Spain, explains that stress can impoverish the health of pet cats and increase their risk of disease.

The authors say that stress in pet cats can lead to behavior changes that are so difficult to manage that owners end up relinquishing them or having them euthanized.

In their paper, they discuss the causes and effects of stress in pet cats and strategies on how to prevent and reduce it.

Some of the main causes of stress that they discuss include changes to the pets’ environment, a barren environment, poor relationships with humans, conflicts with other cats and lack of control and predictability.

The authors note that other new changes – such as the arrival of a new member of the household, or a change in the daily routine – may also be stressful for the family’s feline pet.

Effects of stress in cats

In cats, stress distorts normal behavior – leading to reduction or excess of it. Generally, stress causes a domestic cat to become less active and playful and engage in markedly fewer positive interactions with other cats and humans.

The authors note that stress can also cause pet cats to eat less – or more, in some circumstances – than usual.

Stress can also trigger compulsive behavior in domestic cats, such as over-grooming, to the point where the animal loses its fur, showing patches of bare skin. But sometimes, stress can have the opposite effect, causing the cat to be neglectful about grooming.

Another sign of stress in a pet cat is increased urine spraying and increased vigilance – the animal can also become a lot more vocal than usual.

Cats are naturally curious and social animals, but when stressed, they may stop exploring and hide away for long periods of time. They can also become more aggressive.

Often, owners do not realize that stress is the reason their pet is behaving like this, say the authors, especially if there are no other, more obvious, signs.

Reducing conflict

In their review, the authors cover a range of strategies that owners can use to help reduce stress in their pet cat.

For example, they describe a three-phase method for reducing conflict between cats under the same roof.

It is important, to begin with, the cats are kept in separate parts of the house – each with its own space, litter tray, food and water bowls, scratching posts, toys, and so on.

Then, the cats are introduced to each other’s territory (without the other cat being present) – primarily so they can get used to each other’s smell. In this phase, the owner may also take a clean cloth, rub it on the scent gland of one cat, and then rub the scented cloth on the cheek of the other cat. The authors call this phase “olfactory habituation.”

When the cats appear to be relaxed in each other’s territory (still in the absence of the other), the next phase, called “visual habituation,” can begin. In this phase, the cats get to see each other through a safe barrier – for example a mesh door – while they are engaging in the pleasant activity.

The duration of these “visual contact” sessions is gradually increased, until the final phase, “direct contact habituation,” when the mesh or barrier is removed and the animals are allowed to naturally approach each other physically.

Environmental enrichment

Another stress reduction approach that the authors describe is environmental enrichment, where the physical, social and complexity dimensions of the cat’s life are enriched.

In this approach, the cat is given its own space with its own resources (food and water bowls, toys, etc), where it can feel comfortable and relaxed, without feeling threatened by other cats and dogs or other pets.

As cats spend a lot of time foraging, their space should be enriched with “puzzle feeders” and by hiding food in different places.

For cats that spend a lot of time indoors, their toys should be changed frequently to pique their interest and curiosity. Toys that mimic small, moving, catchable prey are particularly effective for this.

Another way to enrich the pet cat’s environment is to install shelves cat trees or platforms so the pet can explore its space vertically as well as horizontally. Cats like using height as a vantage point, and they like to hide in places above the ground.

The authors also mention studies that suggest giving cats places to hide can reduce stress.

Finally, cats, like humans, have different temperaments, and this needs to be considered when deciding strategies for breeding and raising cats, note the authors.

The full text of the study – which details all the strategies and discussion behind them – is available free to view for a short time at this link.