The Best Kind of Best Friend

By carole dean

Pets can be emotional lifesavers for children. Too often the suburban lifestyle moves faster than a speeding bullet as we race through the daily obstacle course of school, work, clubs, sports, lessons, and classes. Often the ones that suffer from the hectic pace are children. After a difficult day, coming home to a loving pet can be invaluable therapy. There are many benefits to having a family pet and very few drawbacks to consider when making a decision concerning pet ownership.

It is well-known that pet ownership can have tremendous health benefits for people of all ages. A pet can help children adapt to new situations easier, by easing tension during difficult times. The consistency and constancy of a pet can be beneficial in helping children cope with change and loss. Children typically find great comfort from a pet during other stressful situations such as a move, a new sibling, a divorce or remarriage, an older sibling moving out, or a death in the family. Having a pet to hold and interact with can be a viable lifeline to normalcy, allowing children to adapt and adjust. Many studies show that simply petting an animal will usually reduce levels of irritation, anger, frustration, blood pressure, and stress.

A pet typically provides constant loyalty. Most pets love their masters and offer unconditional love. Although a pet will never replace human relationships, the animal-human relationship complements the family unit. Overwhelmed parents often find that a pet offers their child entertainment and affection. Having a pet to play with and occupy time takes the kids away from the negative aspects of excessive electronics entertainment. There’s no substitute for the joys a dog or cat can bring to a child!

My daughters’ play time focused around our pets. Because we introduced both cat and dog to our young children while they were kitten and puppy, the girls and the pets grew together. Our family still enjoys the photos of our pet cat and dog dressed up in doll clothes, in a Cabbage Patch Doll back-pack or a doll stroller!

Responsibility, nurturing, and self-confidence will grow in children as they care for their pet. When children are in charge of a pet, they also gain a sense of personal achievement, as a pet can be a great tool in alleviating self-centeredness and selfishness.

The companionship a pet offers and personal healing go hand in hand. Having a puppy eagerly wagging his tail in earnest affection for a child means acceptance, value, and friendship. For example, children who are having a difficult time with a school bully or peers can seek out a pet to offset overwhelming thoughts of rejection and worthlessness. This in turn gets them over temporary roadblocks that most of us face when growing up. The protective nature of many animals may ease a child’s fear of abandonment or danger.

If your family is already stressed and if the parent(s) are having difficulty managing the household, the addition of a pet may be too much. After all, human interaction is a primary component of pet care. However, if you have a child who is capable of caring for a pet, a stressed home may become a more relaxed environment with the introduction of an animal. In order for this to happen, you’ve got to choose your pet wisely—and it should never be forced into a household where it isn’t wanted. A dog isn’t for everyone; a roly-poly hamster might be enough to satisfy your child’s pet needs. (I had a pair of white mice for several years when I was a child!)

Medical providers are currently monitoring the benefits of Autism Service Dogs for children. Human-animal interaction may be effective in situations where human-human interaction isn’t working. Even large animals, such as horses, can be exceptionally therapeutic for people who are hurting.

If animal allergies are a concern for your family, then you probably shouldn’t bring a furry or hairy animal into your home. That said, several studies suggest that the introduction of a fur bearing pet into a home with babies can decrease the chances of children developing pet allergies. Studies further suggest that young children exposed to allergens of pets have stronger immune systems. There are pets for your child other than cats, dogs, and hamsters—though animals that can be petted and held offer the most emotional and mental health benefits.

Studies show that pets are beneficial in:

• reducing loneliness

• inducing relaxation

• emotional adapting

• developing a sense of intimacy

• providing a sense of self-worth

• teaching responsibility

• providing love

• providing affection

• providing protection

• overcoming shyness

• elevating levels of healthy


As you consider the pros and cons of pet ownership, remember how therapeutic it is for you to watch a beautiful sunset, get a big hug from your child, or enjoy a summer rain shower. These are natural remedies to stress that are proven to lift spirits, calm nerves, and provide pleasure. Adding a pet to your household might be the perfect therapy for your child day in and day out! SFM

Carole Dean, President of Hidden Heart Ranch (a Montana non-profit healing center), is mom to three adult children and their families.