Kid's Best Friend: How Your Family Pet Can Reduce Anxiety

by Melanie Grimes

Rabbits, guinea pigs, fish, horses, and even crickets have something powerful in common. All have been shown to help people reduce their anxiety and stress. Along with traditional pets such as dogs and cats, science has now shown that having a family pet can reduce anxiety. A variety of animals can become “man’s best friend,” as the process of caring for and loving an animal itself promotes healing benefits. Hospitals and classrooms are also beginning to encourage the inclusion of pets because of their ability to help children focus.

Prestigious universities have set up institutes to study this phenomenon, such as the Tufts Institute for Human-Animal Interaction and the Center for the Human-Animal Bond at Purdue University. While having pets in a hospital setting used to be considered unsanitary, many children’s hospitals—such as Texas Children’s Hospital and Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital—are now including animal-assisted therapy to benefit their patients. This is encouraging news to any parents thinking of getting a family pet to benefit their child and reduce their anxiety.

Health Benefits of Pets

Welcoming a family pet into your home can teach children responsibility, encourage socialization and play time as well as create a sense of anxiety-reducing calm. Family pets provide not only a way to overcome loneliness but have been shown to help children feel calmer and even more outgoing. Research has shown that pet owners tend to have lower heart rates, lower blood pressure and less heart-disease risk than non-pet owners. Furthermore, petting an animal provides sensory stimulation, while walking a dog provides exercise and increases socialization.

Do Pets Help with Anxiety?

For those wondering whether pets help with anxiety, the answer is yes. Although we don’t need science to tell us how a cuddly puppy can cheer up a family member, or that watching a tank of colorful fish can help increase visual focus, science has now shown that those same aquariums can even encourage people to eat healthier. As for mental health benefits, research on “pet therapy” shows that even people who say they don’t like animals feel a reduction in anxiety when petting an animal. Another study showed that children who read to their dogs show a reduction in anxiety (and I’m sure the dogs enjoy the attention, too!).

Best Pets for Anxiety

The most common pets for reducing anxiety are dogs and cats. If you or your family members are allergic, or you don’t have room for a dog or a cat, consider a pet that can live in a small cage such as a guinea pig or a hamster. A bird can also make for a great pet and add its song to your home. Small turtles and even crickets are also options to consider since they don’t take up much space. Rabbits make good housemates as well, and some can even be toilet trained!

Deciding If You Should Get Pet

Before you search for a family pet, take into account time and how it will impact everyone in the family. Some things to consider are who will take care of the pet, and if adding a pet will help a child learn responsibility (or increase anxiety through additional tasks). Consider the needs of the pet. For example, how often will the pet need to be walked or brushed? And will these chores mesh with your family’s schedules? Also, make sure your child is old enough to understand the responsiblities of having a pet. Gently introduce them to the chores involved so they’re not too overwhelmed with new information.

Finding Your Perfect Pet

Visiting pet stores is a good way to become acquainted with the types of pets available in your area and to see which ones your family gravitates toward. For dogs and cats, visit the breeder and be sure to inquire about the health and habits of the animal’s parents (and even view them, if possible). Adopting cats and dogs from shelters is another great way to find a wonderful family pet. Whatever pet you decide to get, investigate that animal’s needs as well as your family’s so you can be sure you’ve found a good match.

Melanie Kornfeld Grimes is a medical writer and a classically trained homeopath. An award-winning screenwriter and author, her essays have been published by Penguin Putnam. Her work includes college textbooks, published biographies, and work in her own imprint, Alethea Book Company.