Waging tails, slobbery kisses and furry cuddles are some of the joysassociated with pet ownership. The healthful benefits of owning a pet havebeen well documented, and a growing body of research shows the psychologicalimpact pets can have on families.

A recent study by Johns Hopkins Medicine found that being around dogs at anearly age can lessen one’s chances of developing schizophrenia. Interestingly,cat ownership did not have the same effects. There seems to be somethingspecial about the connection humans have with dogs.

Universities, large companies and even airports are introducing dog-friendlyenvironments for people to cuddle with dogs to help reduce stress and anxiety.An examination of 22 studies about pet companionship, which was published inthe International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health in 2017,found that pet ownership can benefit social, cognitive, education and socialdevelopment.

Families may consider adopting a pet to gain some of these benefits. To betterunderstand the effects of pet ownership, we talked to Dr. Sabrina E.B. Schuck,executive director of the UCI Child Development Center and assistant professorin residence in the Department of Pediatrics at the UCI School of Medicine.(This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)

OCF: What are your thoughts about the recent Johns Hopkins study thatfound early exposure to dogs may decrease one’s chances of developingschizophrenia later in life?

Schuck: The findings are certainly interesting and warrant furtherinvestigation into the role of household pet dogs in childhood on mentalhealth. It is a sound study, but as the authors note, there were a number oflimitations, and as such we need to approach a discussion of the results withcaution.

While I am an avid dog fan, we certainly cannot take away from this research(or my own) that we should bring a dog into our homes when we raise kids.Caring for animals is obviously an immense responsibility, and the decision tobring a dog, or any pet, into the home is complex.

OCF: What are some of the most important health benefits of having a petdog during childhood?

Schuck: Research in human-animal interaction has increased in the past 10years, but there still exists very few well-controlled, randomized trialsexamining the immediate benefits of pet ownership and fewer still longitudinalstudies examining this question.

There is increasing evidence that families who have a pet dog are more likelyto regularly walk their pet, and we speculate that this behavior may reducethe likelihood of developing childhood obesity. Colleagues have also foundthat pet ownership during childhood may decrease anxiety.

OCF: How do exposure and interaction with dogs impact mental healththrough childhood and beyond?

Schuck: Decreased physiological stress and improved perceptions of stresslevels have been found in children and young adults (and adults) whoparticipate in animal-assisted interventions and activities (AAI/AAA).

In our work, we also found improved self-perceptions, improved attention anddecreased conflict in childrenwith mental health challenges who participatedin AAI with therapy dogs. The finding held six weeks after the sessions withthe dogs — and this finding was the same for children who had a pet and whodid not have a pet.

OCF: How and why does pet ownership help reduce anxiety and stress?

Schuck: There are studies that describe reduced perceptions of anxietyamong individuals when they are in the presence of their pet and reducedsalivary cortisol levels in the presence of animals.

Investigators are actively working to better understand the mechanisms bywhich physiological and perceived stress are reduced. Some speculate that theattachment one develops to their pet acts in much the same way healthattachment to our loved ones does. Others suggest the tactile sensationsstimulated during pet interaction release hormones similar to those releasedin social relationships, particularly oxytocin. Still others posit thatinteraction with an animal elicits emotional and cognitive arousal, therebycalming overactivity or stress.

There is no “one size fits all” for human-animal interaction. And we are allworking hard to figure out for whom pet ownership is most beneficial.

Source:Jenna L. Jones __USA The Orange County Register

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