In the current study, researchers from Bassett Medical Center in New York investigated the hypothesis that pet dogs are positively associated with healthy weight and mental health among children.
The study looked at 643 children aged 4-10 years, with an average age of 6.7 years, over an 18-month period in a pediatric primary care setting. Of these, 45% were female, 56% were privately insured and 58% had pet dogs in the home.
Before an annual visit, parents completed a health risk screener online, focusing on child BMI, physical activity, screen time, mental health and pet ownership.
Confounders included the fact that pet-owning families may differ from those without pets, for example in socioeconomic environment, a known social determinant of health; family income has been significantly associated with adolescent mental health, so the researchers adjusted for this factor.
No difference was found between children with and without a pet dog regarding BMI, screen time or physical activity.
But among the 58% of children with a dog in the home, 12% tested positive on a screening test for anxiety, compared with 21% of children who did not have a pet dog.
A strength of the study is that it was carried out in a real-world setting and was based on children in preventive care, a far larger and more inclusive group than in previous studies, which focused on children with mental and developmental disorders.
Parental reporting could be a limitation, although statistics have shown high concordance between actual mental health issues and what parents say. Also, the population was 96% white, suggesting a need for further study in more racially and ethnically diverse populations.
The researchers suggest:
“Interacting with a friendly dog also reduces cortisol levels, most likely through oxytocin release, which lessens physiologic responses to stress. These hormonal effects may underlie the observed emotional and behavioral benefits of animal-assisted therapy and pet dogs.”