More than 163 million cats and dogs currently make their homes in backyards and living rooms across America. That adds up to a lot of dug-up flower beds, vet bills, and ruined upholstery. It also adds up to a lot of happiness.

For children suffering from trauma or hardship, a pet may also offer a lot of security, resilience and unconditional love.

Clients suffering from trauma or PTSD “may develop connections to animals that provide emotional support, a sense of protection, and/or attachment and grounding” during periods when their nervous system is on high alert, accoreding to Ricky Greenwald, PsyD, of the Trauma Institute and Child Trauma Institute in Northampton, Massachusetts. In addition, he has written, pets boost the capacity for stable relationships and  “help build up resilience in the face of adversity.”

Modern research on the therapeutic value of pets dates back for decades, with more recent studies examining pets and children.

Furry companions can promote mental health and resilience in children across the board, according to a 2015 study published in the Journal of the American Board of Family Medicine (JABFM). And a study last fall found that having a pet can also help adults who are less resilient cope with the stresses of everyday life.

Not only do children with pets demonstrate enhanced empathy, self-esteem, and problem-solving, the researchers found, they showed greater trust, community feeling, sense of safety and self-confidence. In addition, “pets provide comfort and act as confidants” for children, according to the authors.

To Cameron Woo, founder of the well-regarded dog magazine The Bark, this makes good sense. “Especially when there’s an only child, a dog can really round out a family and serve as sort of a canine brother or sister,” he said. “Dogs are such a calming influence. Often a dog is a child’s first responsibility — feeding him, taking him on walks, teaching him tricks, brushing him or whatever is age-appropriate — this can definitely build a child’s self-confidence. Having a great companion who goes everywhere with you and is loyal, loving and non-judgmental can also teach a child a lot about healthy relationships.”

For children suffering the aftermath of trauma or adverse childhood experiences (ACEs), dogs may help lower their stress: Studies have linked pets to reduced blood pressure in both children and adults. In one experiment, children were found to have lower blood pressure “in the mere presence of a dog, even though they didn’t interact with the animal,” wrote a researcher in an often-cited article from the Western Journal of Medicine

“Stroking or petting an animal appears to lower both blood pressure and pulse rate in both the human who is petting and the animal being petted,” the authors reported.

One way pets may relieve stress and anxiety in children (and adults) is by triggering the activation of the so-called “love” hormone oxytocin, according to the study published by the Journal of the American Board of Family Medicine. Its effects include lowered anxiety levels and reduced stress, blood pressure, and symptoms of depression, along with increased social interaction, self-confidence, and learning, the researchers noted. According to the journal, “Oxytocin concentrations in dog owners increase significantly when their pets gaze at them.” 


A canine companion may also help protect children against diseases related to stress and a sedentary lifestyle. A study in the American Journal of Public Health, for example, found that children who had dogs devoted more time to vigorous physical activity and took more steps every day than children without pets. Outdoor play was also more common among kids with dogs, according to an article in Preventive Medicine. “Dogs get children outside in nature and  interacting with the natural world, which is not something kids always experience these days,” agreed Woo. “Also, research shows exposure to dogs helps build up kids’ immune systems.”

In an Australian study from Melbourne’s Deakin University, researchers found children 5 to 12 who had a dog were healthier than those who didn’t. Compared to kids without a pooch, young children who played with their dog were less likely to be overweight or obese. 

And if your teen is spending a lot more time on social media or video games than exercise, a family dog may be just what the doctor ordered. A study from the University of Virginia at Charlottesville found that teens with dogs got more exercise than their peers without pooches.

“As dog lovers, we know our dogs and their need for a daily ‘walkathon’ make us more active,” said Woo. “Interestingly, studies show that people improve their overall fitness more with a four-footed companion than they do walking with other people.”

However, some studies have found dogs have little or no effect on kids’ weight and exercise levels, so as a parent, you may want to start a tradition of daily family walks (dogs included). 

And remember, babies, toddlers, and young children should never be left alone with a dog, even a small one, and non-aggressive breeds are a safer choice for you and your neighbors. The wrong pet could end up becoming the exact opposite of a stress reliever. Before bringing home an animal, choose carefully and consider how much attention, space, and time you can give to a new companion. 

If you choose well, you’ll have a friend for life — and you and the kids don’t need a clean bill of health to see the value in that.

Chris Woolston, M.S., who describes himself as a “recovering biologist,” writes for Nature, the Los Angeles Times, Knowable and many other publications. A portion of this article is adapted from an essay he wrote for LimeHealth and is used with permission. Diana Hembree, M.S., is a content strategist for the Center for Care Innovations and a founding editor of MindSite News.


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University of Missouri-Columbia College of Veterinary Medicine. Daily dog walks work off weight for owners, MU researchers find.

Type of work:

News Based on facts, either observed and verified directly by the reporter, or reported and verified from knowledgeable sources.

Diana Hembree, MS, is MindSite News co-founding editor. She is a health and science journalist who served as a senior editor at Time Inc. Health and its physician’s magazine, Hippocrates, for four years,...

Chris Woolston, M.S., who describes himself as a “recovering biologist,” writes for Nature, the Los Angeles Times, The Atlantic, The Washington Post, Knowable, Afar, Quartz, and many other publications....