Pets Assisting Kids with Anxiety

Our child was just two years old when she started asking for a pet. Her requests ranged from wanting dogs, cats and rabbits to goldfish. We honored her wish for a dog, and now they are inseparable. They cuddle during story time and at bedtime. When she rides her bike, he runs alongside. When she falls down, he licks her cheeks. It is pure and uncomplicated love. She calls him BFF (Best Friend Forever).

Companionship is only one aspect of how pets can positively affect the lives of children. Dr. Patricia Bay, a licensed marriage and family therapist with a private practice in Redding, says, “In my experience as a psychologist who has worked with children for almost 30 years, and as a mother and grandmother, I have often recommended a pet as a therapeutic intervention for struggling kids. For children who have been traumatized or are challenged in some way, owning a pet can have a positive impact on them and their whole family.”

In a recent study, researchers from Basset Medical Center, Dartmouth Medical School and the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center conducted an18-month study with 643 children between 4 and 10 years old in a primary care setting. The study concluded that having a pet dog in the home was associated with a decreased probability of childhood anxiety. The researchers write, “Pet dogs could reduce childhood anxiety, particularly social and separation anxiety…. A pet dog can stimulate conversation, an ice-breaking effect that can alleviate social anxiety…. Companionship with a pet can alleviate separation anxiety and strengthen attachment.” Additionally, the researchers point out, “…anxiety disorders often start in childhood and persist into adulthood…. Addressing sub-threshold conditions in primary care settings during childhood is a reasonable target for preventive interventions.”

Dr. Bay echoes the conclusions of the study. She says, “We cannot understate the power of a pet to make a person feel safe. When a child struggles with anxiety, that child is often in a state of fear. A calm dog tells us that the world around us is safe at that moment. That translates, even unconsciously, to those nearby that ‘all is well.’”

Tiara Lavitt, graduate of Southern Oregon University, says, “Throughout most of my childhood I struggled with anxiety. For me that meant chronic stress and periods of feeling entirely powerless to whatever my physical experience would throw at me next. I would feel fine one moment, and the next moment I’d have an overwhelming fear that I might faint or vomit in public. As a defense mechanism, I would dissociate and leave my body, only making matters worse. Most of these instances would happen at school where I felt incredibly alone, while also feeling judged by what seemed like hundreds of surrounding faces. My saving grace was coming home to a dog and a cat, both of whom would help me return my awareness to my body the instant that I pet them. Having a pet that is happy to see you and is always there to listen and support you is incredibly comforting when you have anxiety. Especially, because actually speaking words isn’t necessary – they just understand.”

Licensed marriage and family therapist and certified neurOptimal trainer, Amy Truby, of Mt. Shasta Counseling and Neurofeedback, brings her dog to work as a way to ease the anxiety kids may have about going to counseling. Amy even allows kids to bring their own pets into sessions. She says, “Pets are naturally cute and unconditionally loving. They often are a kid’s best friend. They don’t judge, they are not mean and they are always happy to see you. Many of the kids I see struggle with human interaction because they feel judged, are treated unkindly and are not always greeted with unconditional acceptance by peers, teachers, parents, etc. When kids feel accepted by their pets, it allows one of their basic needs to be met. Thus they feel calmer and more grounded.”

Although dogs are the top choice for therapy animals, they are not the only pets being used. Cats, rabbits, fish, horses, goats, alpacas, exotic birds, lizards, guinea pigs and many others can provide stress-reducing benefits. When choosing an animal, Dr. Bay recommends focusing on calmness. She says, “Remember that some animals sound like a good idea, but fearful pets can be harmful to an anxious child. It can increase a child’s anxiety instead of reducing it.” If owning an animal isn’t an option, Truby reminds us, “Volunteering at an animal shelter is a great way to be involved. They feel like they are doing something positive – thus increasing confidence and a sense of accomplishment.”

Pets – big, small, short, tall, scaly or furry – can have powerful and positive impacts on a child struggling with anxiety. Tiara says that her childhood was forever changed because, “there is nothing like the unconditional love, support and pure acceptance that you get from a companion animal.” 

Tiffany Grimes provides powerful trainings on building resiliency and creating a sense of belonging for kids. Her focus is to influence human behavior through creating an understanding of modern neuroscience and ancient practices with Evolutionary Consulting in Jacksonville, Oregon. You can find her at evolutionary-consulting.com.
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North State Parent is a free monthly publication that circulates within five California counties: Butte, Glenn, Shasta, Southern Siskiyou and Tehama. Our pages are filled with family-oriented places to go, services and products geared for women and things to do; a focus on parenting, community, health, education, teens, youth, and much more.

Updated: Oct 10, 2017 @ 10:47 am