Man’s best friend may lower kids’ stress levels, according to a new study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The research, published in a recent issue of the CDC’s journal Preventing Chronic Disease, found that pet dogs – already known to reduce rates of allergies and asthma in kids – may also protect children from childhood anxiety.
“Because dogs follow human communicative clues, they may be particularly effective agents for children’s emotional development,” wrote the research team in the study’s introduction. “From a mental health standpoint, children 7 and 8 often ranked pets higher than humans as providers of comfort and self-esteem and as confidants,” they added.
For the study, a research team led by Anne Gadomski, MD, an attending pediatrician and research scientist at Bassett Medical Center in Cooperstown, N.Y., looked at 643 children aged 4 to 10 years in a primary care setting over a period of 18 months. Among the study group, 96 percent were white, 45 percent were girls, 56 percent were privately insured and 58 percent had pet dogs.
Before a child’s annual doctor’s visit, parents were asked to complete an online screening survey. Questions focused on the child’s body mass index (BMI), physical activity, screen time, mental health and pet ownership.
Gadomski and her colleagues found no difference in BMI, screen time or physical activity between children who had a pet dog and those who did not. However, among the 58 percent of children who had a dog in the home, 12 percent tested positive on a screening test for anxiety, compared with 21 percent of the children who did not have a pet dog.
“Significant differences between groups were found for the separation anxiety component (‘My child is afraid to be alone in the house’) and social anxiety component (‘My child is shy’), favoring pet ownership,” the study authors wrote.
The researchers suggested that having a dog may reduce a child’s anxiety in several ways, including triggering conversations and helping break the ice with new people. In addition, they wrote, “Interacting with a friendly dog also reduces cortisol levels, most likely through oxytocin release, which lessens physiological responses to stress. These hormonal effects may underlie the observed emotional and behavioral benefits of animal-assisted therapy and pet dogs.”
With cat lovers in mind, Gadomski noted that her team looked at dogs because there is so much research about them. “It doesn’t mean that cats can’t do the same thing,” she told NBC News.