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Researchers say a new study shows kids who live in a home with a pet dog score far lower on clinical measures of anxiety.
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It’s a small study, focusing on 643 kids between 6 and 7. But the team at Bassett Medical Center in New York found that just 12 percent of children with pet dogs tested positive for clinical anxiety, compared to 21 percent of children without a dog.
“It may be that less anxious children have pet dogs or pet dogs make children less anxious,” Dr. Anne Gadomski and colleagues wrote in the journal Preventing Chronic Disease.
It’s not an entirely surprising finding. Pet dogs can also benefit adults and federal health officials recommend that adults consider getting a dog. For one thing, they can encourage people to exercise.
And Gadomski was aware of just how special pets can be to a child.
"Sometimes their first word is the name of their pet," she told NBC News. "There is a very strong bond between children and their pets."
Gadomski’s team dug into why dogs might benefit kids in particular.
“From a mental health standpoint, children aged 7 to 8 often ranked pets higher than humans as providers of comfort and self-esteem and as confidants,” they wrote.
“Animal-assisted therapy with dogs affects children’s mental health and developmental disorders by reducing anxiety and arousal or enhancing attachment,” they added.
“Because dogs follow human communicative cues, they may be particularly effective agents for children’s emotional development.”
The researchers asked parents for specific details about what type of anxiety a child showed.
Pets seemed to help in several areas.
“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,” they wrote.
Most of the families in the study – 73 percent – had a pet of some kind. Most – 58 percent - had dogs. Families with pets may be more stable and may be more affluent, but the researchers suggest there’s more to it than that.
“A pet dog can stimulate conversation, an ice-breaking effect that can alleviate social anxiety via a social catalyst effect,” they wrote.
Other studies have also shown that playing or cuddling with a dog can release the bonding hormone oxytocin, and lower the stress hormone cortisol, they noted.
Gadomski noted her team looked at dogs because there's so much research about them. "It doesn't mean that cats can't do the same thing," she said.