Pet dogs decrease anxiety levels in children

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A dog, with his fur dyed green and wearing antlers made out of red fabric, poses for a photograph before participating in the Thanksgiving Day Parade in El Paso, Texas, United States November 26, 2015. Reuters

Children who live with a pet dog have lower levels of anxiety, according to a study published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).  This study, published on Nov 25, examined the association of owning pet dogs with healthy weight and mental health among children.

The researchers studied 643 children, ages four to 10 years, for 18 months. Forty-five per cent were girls, 56 per cent were privately insured and 58 per cent owned pet dogs. The kids completed the DartScreen, a comprehensive Web-based health risk screener administered using an electronic tablet, which probed into body mass index (BMI), physical activity, screen time, mental health and pet-related inquiries.

There was no difference in BMI, screen time or physical activity between children who owned a dog and children without one. However, the study found out that only 12 per cent of children with pet dogs tested positive for anxiety, lower than the 21 per cent of children without a dog evaluated.

"Sometimes their (children) first word is the name of their pet,"  Anne Gadomski, one of the authors of the study, told NBC News. "There is a very strong bond between children and their pets."

Interaction with dogs releases oxytocin, which reduces the stress hormone cortisol. The effects may be the reason for the  emotional and behavioural benefits of animal-assisted therapy and pet dogs.

"Animal-assisted therapy with dogs affects children's mental health and developmental disorders by reducing anxiety and arousal or enhancing attachment," the researchers added. "Because dogs follow human communicative cues, they may be particularly effective agents for children's emotional development."

A pet dog can also initiate conversation, a tool to ease social anxiety. Gadomski stated that the team only delved into dogs because there has been previous research about them. Other pets, like cats, can also yield the same effects.

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