August 21, 2017

Does Pet Ownership Impact a Child's Health?

Is pet ownership really as beneficial to children’s health as previous studies have suggested? Possibly not.
By JoAnna Pendergrass, DVM
Pet ownership and interaction have long been believed to affect children’s health for the better. For example, studies have identified several psychological benefits with dog interactions, including social support and reduced anxiety. Other studies have reported greater physical activity among children in dog-owning households than among those in non–dog-owning households.

However, these studies often did not control for confounding factors, leading to potentially clouded outcomes. In addition, experimental results indicating anxiety reduction highlighted the short-term effects of a pet’s presence, suggesting a novel effect that is not generalizable to long-term anxiety reduction.

The authors of a study recently published in Anthrozoös have determined that, after controlling for confounding factors, pet ownership did not significantly affect children’s health.

The current study sought to provide a clear and nonconfounded assessment of the effect of pet ownership on children’s health.

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Data Analysis
Researchers analyzed data from the 2003 California Health Interview Survey, a population-based telephone survey that collected health, demographic, and socioeconomic information; it also contained a question on dog and cat ownership. Analysis was restricted to about 5,200 families with at least 1 child aged 5 to 11 years.

Analyzed questions included those pertaining to a child’s overall health and other health outcomes, including the child’s weight and parental concern about the child’s behavior, feelings, and mood.

The researchers selected 20 confounding factors and compared their frequencies between the approximately 3000 pet-owning and 2200 non–pet-owning households; when analyzing the comparisons, a statistical scoring method was used to reduce bias from the confounding factors.

To control for confounding factors when determining associations between pet ownership and health outcomes, the researchers used what’s called double robust regression. Overall, such statistical rigor allowed the researchers to “obtain unbiased estimates of the effects of pet cats and dogs on children’s health.”

Results
Household Characteristics
Overall, 25% of households owned dogs and 19% owned cats. Most adult respondents were white, Hispanic or Latino, with 40% indicating that their child received free or reduced school lunches. Compared with non–pet owners, pet owners were significantly:
  • Less likely to have a child receiving free or reduced school lunches
  • More likely to be white, live in a house, and have better English-speaking skills
Health Outcome Comparisons
Compared with children in households without pets, children in pet-owning households:
  • Had better overall health
  • Were more active and less obedient
  • Were more frequently diagnosed with ADD/ADHD
  • Had less parental concern about the child’s mood, behavior, feelings, and learning ability
Regression Analysis Results
Without controlling for confounding factors, the researchers observed many significant associations between pet ownership and children’s health. Largely mirroring the health outcome comparisons, pet ownership was significantly associated with greater physical activity and better overall health in children.

However, controlling for these factors dramatically reduced these effects. The researchers noted that, following double robust regression analysis, “there was no longer any evidence of significant effects of pet ownership.”

Conclusion
The researchers concluded that the study’s reported benefits of pet ownership were largely due to confounding factors. Given this conclusion, they believed that “statements exclaiming the benefits of pet ownership for children are at best premature, and that this remains ‘an unsubstantiated hypothesis.’”

For future studies, the researchers suggested examining the influences of pet ownership duration and pet interaction levels on children’s health outcomes over time, given that these factors were unable to be assessed in the current study.

 
Dr. JoAnna Pendergrass received her Doctor of Veterinary Medicine degree from the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine. Following veterinary school, she completed a postdoctoral fellowship at Emory University’s Yerkes National Primate Research Center. Dr. Pendergrass is the founder and owner of JPen Communications, a medical communications company.

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