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children and pets

Having a Pet Is Not Going to Change Your Kid’s Life

Contrary to popular belief, having a pet in the home does not improve the mental or physical health of children, according to a new RAND Corporation study.

The findings are from the largest-ever study to explore the notion that pets can improve children’s health by increasing physical activity and improving young people’s empathy skills.

Unlike earlier, smaller studies on the topic, the RAND work used advanced statistical tools to control for multiple factors that could contribute to a child’s well-being other than pet ownership, such as belonging to a family that has higher income or living in a more affluent setting. The results are published in the journal Anthrozoos.

“We could not find evidence that children from families with dogs or cats are better off either in terms of their mental well-being or their physical health,” said Layla Parast, a co-author of the study and a statistician at RAND, a nonprofit research organization. “Everyone on the research team was surprised — we all have or grew up with dogs and cats. We had essentially assumed from our own personal experiences that there was a connection.”

The study analyzed information from more than 2,200 American children who lived in households that owned dogs or cats and compared them to about 3,000 households without a dog or cat.

Researchers found trends: Children from pet-owning families tended to have better general health, have slightly higher weight and were more likely to be physically active compared to children whose families did not have pets; kids who owned pets were more likely to have ADD/ADHD, were more likely to be obedient and were less likely to have parents concerned about their child’s feelings, mood, behavior and learning ability.

But these trends didn’t lead to conclusions; when the team adjusted the findings to account for other variables that might be associated with both the likelihood of a family having a pet and better health and development outcomes, the association between pet ownership and better health disappeared. Overall, researchers considered more than 100 variables in adjusting their model of children and pets and health, including family income, language skills and type of family housing.

In other words, while having a pet is a wonderful experience, there are no long-term benefits to kids that can’t be achieved by other means.

While many previous studies have suggested a link between pet ownership and better emotional and physical health, RAND researchers say their analysis has more credibility because it analyzed a larger sample than previous efforts.

Researchers acknowledge the ultimate test of the pet-health hypothesis would require a randomized trial where some people are given pets and other are not, with the groups being followed for 10 to 15 years to see if there are differences in their health outcomes — but such a study is unlikely, they say, due to its probably high cost.

So, while babies and puppies make for great photo ops and lifelong pals, if you can’t afford a pet, don’t have the space to accommodate one, or simply can’t be bothered, you’re not depriving your child of something essential to their health or development.

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