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Pets as Emotional Support: Benefits

The interaction between animals and humans dates back to ancient times when, in addition to being used

as food, they began to be used for home protection, eventually evolving into companion animals. Among them, dogs have become the most representative and beloved companions, providing support for the mental and physical challenges faced by some individuals.


This interaction is bidirectional and can be demonstrated, for example, by the evidence of interspecies emotional contagion recorded in dogs' genetics. It allows them to acquire skills for interacting with humans, even at the olfactory level, distinguishing between joy and fear and reacting with interest or aggression, respectively (1). It can be said that there are also effects in the other direction. Research conducted to date strongly suggests that interaction with animals is closely associated with physical, mental, and social benefits in humans (1,2,3), extending beyond the companionship they provide, which gives a greater sense of security and well-being (2).


Pets play a role in the socio-emotional development of children, leading to higher levels of self-esteem, autonomy, confidence, social skills (sharing, helping, cooperating), empathy (4,5), and a reduced sense of loneliness (4). These children also tend to be more active (3,4), have greater independence, a lower likelihood of developing allergies, and better growth and development (4).


There are several mechanisms through which pets promote this development. For example, dogs increase physical activity and active play in children, which has mental and physical health benefits. They also provide emotional support when children are stressed (2,6) or anxious. In terms of learning, valuable life lessons are imparted, such as the inevitability and irreversibility of death and the responsibility of caring for a living being. These daily lessons also encourage children to engage in civic and social activities (4).


However, most studies on human-animal interaction in children have focused on conditions such as autism spectrum disorders, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, or allergies, with limited evidence beyond service animals such as guide dogs or those providing emotional support. This scarcity of studies on the effects of pets on healthy children is notable.


Longitudinal studies are best suited for understanding the role of pets in child development, as demonstrated by an Australian study associating pet ownership with fewer emotional, social, and academic problems in children, with the type of pet also being a key factor. According to the results, having a dog reduces the probability of having deficient social or emotional development by 20%, which can be translated into greater empathy. Children with dogs or cats appear to have fewer problems, while those with dogs show better prosocial behavior (4). The effects on juvenile delinquency are also evident (5).


In children's learning (2), having siblings or interacting with other children promotes positive social behavior, which is also observed when they have pets. Pets play a similar role to siblings, providing significant benefits for children who lack siblings or other children to interact with at home, giving them greater confidence and less fear of rejection. They imitate interactions with other humans and learn social concepts, and the presence of a pet can facilitate interaction with their peers (4).


This translates into the possibility of a greater impact on children than on adults since the potency of the factors involved is greater in the early years of life, and their effects can extend into adulthood, making it an interesting area of study.


Focusing on adults, pet owners tend to be more active (1,3) and have higher levels of social interaction and a sense of community (1). They have a better perception of their own life (7,8), their neighborhood or environment, and a higher quality of sleep, especially when the pet is a dog (3). The latter can be explained by the relaxing effect of


walking the dog before bedtime (3). In terms of health, it is suggested that pet ownership leads to a reduction in medication intake, doctor visits, and blood pressure, resulting in a lower risk of coronary disease or death in the year following a coronary disease (3,7). This translates into lower cardiovascular mortality or health problems, reflecting the potential economic benefit of owning a pet (3).


For the elderly, there are benefits in terms of quality of life, which is increasingly relevant in these times when life expectancy is constantly increasing. The company of an animal can help maintain a routine of physical and mental care that older people need, stabilizing their connection with the world around them (9) and providing support for those suffering from loneliness (3).


The relationship between dogs and humans is of interest to various fields of science, such as behavioral evolution, veterinary medicine, and educational interventions. Its increasingly demonstrated effects lead to its therapeutic use as a non-pharmacological treatment for mental disorders (2), neurological conditions (10), or for enhancing well-being in healthcare settings. Furthermore, this connection benefits the animals themselves, reducing stress and facilitating learning or resource acquisition (2).


Therapeutically, animal companionship has been studied to a lesser extent in neurological diseases such as stroke, dementia, Parkinson's, epilepsy, but it has been shown to improve symptoms, quality of life, and disease progression. The use of dogs and owning a dog improves mood, quality of life, and symptoms in these neurological conditions (10). The question is whether this can be extrapolated to other diseases that humans may experience.


In all the studies conducted, discrepancies in the results are noted, emphasizing the need for further research (4,5) to investigate the relationship between pet ownership and child development. Factors influencing the acquisition of a pet introduce biases, such as geographic factors, including a higher tendency to rent housing, which reduces the possibility of owning pets at home (4). This makes interpreting the results difficult (5) as one must distinguish between the profile of a person who tends to acquire companion animals and the effect that these animals have on their owners, which inevitably shapes another profile of a pet owner. Most studies are limited by methodological issues, such as non-representative or small sample sizes and designs with limited statistical power (4). The lack of scientific rigor also hampers the interpretation of results and drawing definitive conclusions, as many studies end up unpublished due to null results (11).


Further research is needed to study the long-term effects of owning animals, the influence of the age at which a child starts having a pet, or the effects during critical periods such as the transition from primary to secondary education (4). Questions also arise regarding the effectiveness of these animals, the dosage of affection and animal companionship a person should receive, the time it takes for the effects to manifest, and the populations that would benefit the most (9). However, the conclusion is that we can all potentially benefit from the companionship of an animal at home.


References:

1. D'Aniello B, Semin GR, Alterisio A, Aria M, Scandurra A. Interspecies transmission of emotional information via chemosignals: from humans to dogs (Canis lupus familiaris). Anim Cogn. 2018 Jan;21(1):67-78. doi: 10.1007/s10071-017-1139-x. Epub 2017 Oct 7. PMID: 28988316.


2. Solomon J, Beetz A, Schöberl I, Gee N, Kotrschal K. Attachment security in companion dogs: adaptation of Ainsworth's strange situation and classification procedures to dogs and their human caregivers. Attach Hum Dev. 2019 Aug;21(4):389-417. doi: 10.1080/14616734.2018.1517812. Epub 2018 Sep 24. PMID: 30246604; PMCID: PMC6532729.


3. Mein G, Grant R. A cross-sectional exploratory analysis between pet ownership, sleep, exercise, health and neighbourhood perceptions: the Whitehall II cohort study. BMC Geriatr. 2018 Aug 9;18(1):176. doi: 10.1186/s12877-018-0867-3. PMID: 30092763; PMCID: PMC6085675.


4. Christian H, Mitrou F, Cunneen R, Zubrick SR. Pets Are Associated with Fewer Peer Problems and Emotional Symptoms, and Better Prosocial Behavior: Findings from the Longitudinal Study of Australian Children. J Pediatr. 2020 May;220:200-206.e2. doi: 10.1016/j.jpeds.2020.01.012. Epub 2020 Feb 21. PMID: 32093933.


5.Jacobson KC, Chang L. Associations Between Pet Ownership and Attitudes Toward Pets With Youth Socioemotional Outcomes. Front Psychol. 2018 Nov 26;9:2304. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2018.02304. PMID: 30534102; PMCID: PMC6275470.


6. Kertes DA, Liu J, Hall NJ, Hadad NA, Wynne CDL, Bhatt SS. Effect of Pet Dogs on Children's Perceived Stress and Cortisol Stress Response. Soc Dev. 2017 May;26(2):382-401. doi: 10.1111/sode.12203. Epub 2016 Jul 28. PMID: 28439150; PMCID: PMC5400290.


7. Wright MM, Schreiner P, Rosser BRS, Polter EJ, Mitteldorf D, West W, Ross MW. The Influence of Companion Animals on Quality of Life of Gay and Bisexual Men Diagnosed with Prostate Cancer. Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2019 Nov 13;16(22):4457. doi: 10.3390/ijerph16224457. PMID: 31766206; PMCID: PMC6888196.


8. White N, Mills D, Hall S. Attachment Style Is Related to Quality of Life for Assistance Dog Owners. Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2017 Jun 19;14(6):658. doi: 10.3390/ijerph14060658. PMID: 28629205; PMCID: PMC5486344.


10. Boldig CM, Butala N. Pet Therapy as a Nonpharmacological Treatment Option for Neurological Disorders: A Review of the Literature. Cureus. 2021 Jul 4;13(7):e16167. doi: 10.7759/cureus.16167. PMID: 34367777; PMCID: PMC8336327.


9. McCune S, Promislow D. Healthy, Active Aging for People and Dogs. Front Vet Sci. 2021 Jun 7;8:655191. doi: 10.3389/fvets.2021.655191. PMID: 34164450; PMCID: PMC8215343.


11.Rodriguez KE, Greer J, Yatcilla JK, Beck AM, O'Haire ME. The effects of assistance dogs on psychosocial health and wellbeing: A systematic literature review. PLoS One. 2020 Dec 2;15(12):e0243302. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0243302. Erratum in: PLoS One. 2021 Aug 9;16(8):e0256071. PMID: 33264370; PMCID: PMC7710121.



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