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Why children need pets

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“But mommy,” says one of the small people in my house, “All our friends have pets with names like Timmy and Fluffy and Tom. Why can’t we?” The discussion is all around what we will call our new puppy. Mommy is being a spoilsport because she insists on names that are meaningful and interesting and will stimulate the imagination or at the very least, conversation.

Pets are an important part of family life so I think the naming ceremonies for them must be treated with due consideration. When we were growing up my mother forebade us to give our pets names of people. So Timmy and Tom and Rodger were definitely out. Her reasoning was that if any of our neighbours turned out to have the same name as our dog, they would think we were very disrespectful. Personally, I think she too just secretly wanted her children to stretch their imaginations a little more.

Pets in the townships then were obviously a different kettle of fish from pets in the suburbs now. Our pets were not allowed in the house and we certainly wouldn’t have been permitted to cuddle them on our mothers’ sofas, though I do remember once having a cat that generously decided to give birth in my bed! Still, we loved our dogs and cats (pet ownership didn’t usually extend to hamsters and budgies in those days) and they gave us a lot of joy and affection.

Pets are generally understood to be very beneficial to children. It’s easy to see how having pets can improve your child’s sense of responsibility.

Learning to feed and water animals and make sure they have somewhere to sleep improves a child’s sense of duty and empathy. Additionally, particularly in the case of dogs, training the pet can be a long-term fun activity that costs nothing, but improves a child’s social skills, perseverance and patience.

But apparently pets also have an influence of physical health. Research shows that children who have pets at home have a stronger immune system and are better at fighting infections than those who don’t.

According to Dr June McNicholas, a health psychologist and based on a study which examined 256 children (aged five to 11 years) in three schools in England and Scotland, kids with pets take fewer sick days than those without.

Researchers found four and five-year-olds whose families kept animals had attendance levels 18% higher than their peers without pets. Dr McNicholas said the theory was that pets helped boost children’s immune systems. (www.bbc.co.uk)
A Swedish study found that pet exposure during the first year of life was associated with a lower prevalence of allergic rhinitis and asthma in children ages 7 to 13 years old. Another, large–scale survey of 11 000 Australians, Chinese and Germans found that pet owners made up to 20% fewer annual visits to the doctor than non-pet owners. A study of 100 children younger than 13 years who owned cats found that more than 80% said they got along better with family and friends. (www.everydayhealth.com)

Many studies have linked family ownership of a pet with high self-esteem in young children and greater cognitive development. Even at university level, one US study of 394 university students revealed that those who had owned dogs or cats as childhood pets were more self-confident than those who did not.

Apart from being wonderful playmates and sympathetic listeners, dogs also stimulate communication skills in children. A study of 455 schoolchildren between the ages of 11 and 16 revealed that children with pets had a better ability to understand non-verbal communication.

Dogs are also said to be able to help children cope with life situations such as the arrival of a new sibling or divorce. They are better able to share their parents’ attention as well as understanding what is involved in caring for another. Children learn about medical issues and illness as they experience veterinary check-ups and treatments for their dogs. Dogs also help children better comprehend and cope with death. (www.holisticonline.com)

When parents get divorced, pets provide children with security and companionship. They play the role of confidant and best friend, helping them feel less alone, and they can a bridge the communication gaps that can arise between adults and children.

In the final analysis, I suppose it doesn’t really matter what you call your pets, as long as they give you the unconditional love and devotion that seems to be the key reason why pets are so good for children’s emotional development.

So we ended up with a cat called Sarafina, a dog called Addis Ababa and a goldfish called Safari. Is this a better selection of names? I really don’t know, but it does make me feel better than having to call, “Timmy! Timmy!”

Thembe Sachikonye writes in her personal capacity.
Readers’ comments can be sent to localdrummer@newsday.co.zw.
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