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Owing pets with Children

“Mummy can I have a puppy (goldfish/kitten/snake/hamster)?”
If you haven’t had that request yet, at some stage in your child’s life you undoubtedly will. Children love pets especially when the pets are small, cuddly and cute.

I have always been surrounded by animals so having two yellow eyes gazing down at me from the top of my computer and a large dog farting contentedly at my feet has become a way of life.

Is having pets a good idea?

From the physical perspective they can be hazardous. Rover’s brown hound mounds, can carry a number of parasites, (including round worm,) some of which can remain in the soil as eggs for years. Children because they are inclined to play in the dirt can easily pick up these eggs and should they put their hands in their mouths or rub their eyes and bingo the egg has a home. So having a dog involves meticulously picking up the poop to avoid contamination. Many of us are very busy and don’t always have the time to do this on a daily basis and thus increase the risk of contamination. (I always do a general family/pet de-worming exercise at least twice a year to lessen the possibility).

Added to this risk there is the very real risk of having a dog who can turn on a child and attack it, as this excerpt from a newspaper by a boerbull shows: …the boy, Meyer Olivier, was playing with a toy gun, aiming it at the dog and pulling the trigger…The next moment he apparently gave the dog a smack on the nose with the toy gun. It was at this point that the dog bit the child in the face, causing him to fall. When the child tried to get up again, the dog bit him on the head. The dog undoubtedly had good reason to attack, yet those are the things kids do and having a potentially vicious breed is, in my opinion, just asking for trouble. (In SA it is reported that boerbulls are the most euthanased breed due to their tendency to attack.) Worldwide Pit bulls, Rottweilers, German Shepherds, Dobermans, Chow Chows and Huskies fall into the top ten most dangerous breeds. Owners of these breeds will assure you that it is all about the handling of the dog rather than the breed, and that any unsocialised, untrained, unneutered dominant male dog, irrespective of the breed is a hazard.

Pit bulls because they have been bred to fight do carry a genetic impulse which makes them more likely to attack, German Shepherds tend to be more nervy and thus more likely to act impulsively, while Chows are almost always unpredictable. “Boerbulls were originally much smaller dogs of around 35kgs and were good family dogs, but specialised breeding has now made them larger (in some cases up to 80kgs) and more aggressive,” said one vet.

“There are no breeds you shouldn’t have,” says Sue*, a local vet, “if the animal has been well socialised from a puppy, if the owners knew the parents of the dog as not being aggressive and if the dog has been familiarised with all races and ages of people, then it should not pose a threat. That being said, a large dog will obviously do more damage if it bites than a small one, but small dogs can be less tolerant and more snappy. In the end it boils down to how responsible the owner of the dog is, in terms of training and socialisation”.

Trouble is when your child goes to a friend to play you can’t be sure what the mentality is of the dogs in that home is. Whilst they may be tolerant of their own children’s’ behaviour your child may be seen as fair game.

There is another downside to owning dogs than the potential for attacking. A team at the University of Southern California’s Keck School of Medicine, in a study of 475 asthmatic children found that having a dog in the home worsened the lungs response to air pollution in asthmatic children (this was not the case with cats). This resulted in increased coughing, phlegm production and bronchitis responses with exposure to pollutants such as ozone. Those asthmatic children without dogs did not experience the same increase in symptoms.

Kitty is however not off the hook, as cats are highly allergenic and can cause asthma to occur in children. That being said my asthmatic son has insisted on sleeping with at least one cat in his bed since he was four. I figured the emotional reassurance outweighed any physical difficulties that might arise as a result of this.

Yesterday when he left for a school camp he gave me a brief hug goodbye, the cat however, got the loving caress and passionate kisses that as a twelve year old boy he felt more comfortable giving to the feline rather than the feminine presence in his life.

If owning a pet is potentially physically hazardous, emotionally it is highly beneficial. “It’s an important way to teach socialisation in young children,” says Sue, “through their relationship with animals they learn to have a mini life experience. They learn about responsibility, caring and when the animal dies they learn about death and how to cope with loss which may help them later in life when a family member of close friend dies.”

Previous research from the 1980’s indicated the popular idea that heart attack patients lived an average of six years longer if they owned a pet. This finding has since been questioned; however there is more recent research that indicates that kids with pets have significantly less absenteeism from school as a result of illness than those who don’t have pets.

In another piece of research, significant increased scores on the level of social competency and empathy were found in children who owned a pet such as a dog or cat. (Goldfish although easy to own just don’t have the same emotional response). This empathy extended not just to pets but to other children in general.

Children who came from pet friendly homes were also found to have scored higher on activities and interest levels, meaning they were more inclined to want to participate in various activities and showed greater interest in the world around them. Both of which are a prerequisite for future academic success.

When I was a child and experiencing troubled times, it was my cat to whom I turned for comfort, love and solace. For hours I would mimic Billy’s activities and delight in his warm furry embrace. I felt he understood the turmoil that I could not verbalise to any friend or adult. He was my emotional confidante so its not surprising that children who own pets experience their pets as being special friends, esteem support, providers of comfort, important family members (in one study many children drew their pets as being closer to them than family members), providers of social interaction, affection and emotional support. It’s no wonder then that in some studies children rated pets as higher in their relationship than certain human interactions.

For the lonely child, pets can provide some form of companionship and social interaction that would otherwise not be there, which in itself would be beneficial on the child’s general well-being, which would have an indirect effect on his or her health. The fact that these relationships are not human also means that the child is less likely to experience the fluctuations they might do with their peers, such as being bullied, dropped or replaced as a friend and the other common pitfalls prevalent in human interaction. Its unconditional acceptance that the pet offers (provided it’s not a Pit bull on steroids).

No matter what happens on the playground, Tiddles is always there lying luxuriously in the sun on top of your best cashmere sweater, just waiting to be adored by your six year old. We all need unconditional acceptance, but sadly seldom experience it from fellow humans (mostly because we cannot accept ourselves unconditionally) pets provide this. I may been out all day or had to send him to kennels, but one thing I am assured of is that no matter what has transpired, I will always get a loving, enthusiastic welcome.

This acceptance assists a child to learn self acceptance or self esteem as well as acceptance of others. Responsibility is also a positive outcome. From a young age I taught my children to feed the animals. This sense of responsibility while at times resulting in whines and “Do I have toos,” was a great way to build their sense of self. The responsibility gave the message of “I am capable of being entrusted with doing this job. In doing so I am pleasing the animal which makes me feel good about myself.”
Personally, the emotional plusses of having pets far outweigh the physical minuses, which is probably why my house resembles a mini Noah’s ark. (However the kids are happy and healthy, and it can be sort of inexpensive holistic heating method to have several furry things on the bed with you!)

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