By Dr. Becker
Children have much to gain from being raised with a pet in their home, especially if they're involved in the pet's care. This may be particularly true for children with type 1 diabetes, a chronic condition that requires careful self-management to ensure blood sugar levels stay within a normal range.
In children learning to live with type 1 diabetes, family cohesion and adaptability, positive coping strategies, social support and self-regulatory behavior are known to influence the ability to effectively manage the disease.
Researchers from the University of Massachusetts Medical School (UMMS) suggested that such attributes are also associated with caring for a family pet and that the latter might therefore be beneficial to kids managing type 1 diabetes.
Type 1-Diabetic Children Who Care for Pets Have Better Glycemic Control
The study involved more than 200 children between the ages of 9 and 19 years. Results from hemoglobin A1C tests (HbA1c), which provide an average of your blood sugar control over the past two or three months, were reviewed and the children were asked questions about pets in their home and their level of involvement in the pet's care.
Those who actively cared for one or more pets at home were 2.5 times more likely to have control over their glycemic levels than children who did not care for a pet.1
The study even took into account differences between children who simply love their pets and those who actually care for them. The latter was necessary to favorably influence diabetic control. The researchers concluded:2
"While proposing that non-pet owning families adopt a dog or cat may be impractical, a child may benefit from responsible ownership of a fish or other low maintenance, inexpensive pet.
Similarly, families that currently own a dog or cat may find that encouraging a shared responsibility of the pet with the child with diabetes could boost feelings of ownership and indirectly improve glycemic control.
Associating self-care to the care of the family pet may bring about positive changes that may ultimately enhance the lives of the parents, the child and the pet."
Pet Ownership May Benefit Children With Autism and Military Kids, Too
Children with other health conditions may also benefit from pet ownership, and this includes children with autism. Dogs, for instance, may act as social lubricants and help children who struggle in social situations to interact with potential playmates.
In an interview of 70 parents of children with autism, nearly all (94 percent) of the dog owners believed their children were bonded to their dogs. If you're not sure a dog is the best fit, consider a rabbit, rat, horse or cat instead.
Even tarantulas have been used to support children with autism,3 as have pot-bellied pigs and guinea pigs. In one study, when children with autism interacted with guinea pigs, their anxiety levels declined, even in the midst of a social situation at school.
The study suggests the guinea pigs acted as a social buffer and had a calming, stress-lowering effect in children with autism.4 Among children of deployed U.S. military personnel, meanwhile, a family pet may reduce stress and help them cope.5
Children who were bonded to a companion animal had higher positive youth development scores in measures such as competence, confidence, connection, character, and caring, than all military-connected children.
Among children with at least one parent who was deployed, interacting with a companion animal helped them to manage their stress. As was the case in the diabetes study, the more involved in the relationship the children were, the more benefits they received.
Study author Megan Mueller, Ph.D., of the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University explained:6
"It isn't enough to be around animals — children need to be engaged in that relationship.
Strong attachments to pets may foster a more proactive attitude about handling stressful problems and could serve as a bridge to developing and maintaining peer relationships during stressful circumstances."
The Many Ways Pets Benefit Their Owners
It's not only children with health issues that stand to benefit from pet ownership. Other children and adults alike also have much to gain. Research shows companion animals lead to both short- and long-term improvements in physical and psychological health.
Pet ownership is known, for instance, to moderate stress, leading to improvements in heart rate and blood pressure.
It's also associated with reduced rates of illness among owners as well as quicker recovery if illness does occur. And children who have dogs, by the way, are less likely to suffer from anxiety. Further, as noted in the journal PLOS ONE:7
"In studies about the effect of companion animals on psychological health, research has shown that animals can ameliorate the effects of potentially stressful life events, reduce levels of anxiety, loneliness and depression, and enhance feelings of autonomy, competence and self-esteem."
Be Sure Your Child and Your Family Are Ready for a Pet
If you're considering adding a pet to your family, for the purpose of supporting type 1-diabetes management or otherwise, please do not take the decision lightly. With all of the benefits comes a considerable amount of responsibility and added expenses, which your family must be prepared for before bringing a new pet home.
Once you know you're ready, you know your child best and can gauge what type of pet may be best for him or her. Even a fish tank can have a calming effect on many people, kids included (but even fish need careful ongoing care).
It's important to not only match the type of pet with the child's level of maturity and personality, but also consider the personality of each individual animal. The great thing about rescuing a mature animal is that you're capable of determining, usually in a short period of time, whether the partnership is a match, in terms of personality.
Many organizations have programs where your family is able to "team up for a weekend," prior to actually adopting an animal. Making sure "every piece fits" prior to adoption can be an important step in enjoying the lifetime commitment of caring for another living creature.
If you're considering adding a pet to your home and your child is under 5 years you can assume that you'll be doing most of the pet care. Even children under 10 should not be expected to care for a dog or cat completely on their own. That being said, deciding on a pet should be a family decision. Be sure everyone is present when you visit a shelter to choose a dog, for instance, and discuss ahead of time what role in pet care each person will take.
For kids that must learn manage a complex medical condition like type 1 diabetes, however, the responsibility of feeding, grooming and/or walking a dog or otherwise caring for another pet of their choice will likely empower them to take better care of themselves as well.