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Animals and Children

My Dental Hygienist has a picture of puppies affixed to the ceiling above the chair where I sit to get my teeth cleaned. When I asked about the picture she said, "Children like it. I guess they see the animals as being vulnerable like they feel. It's comforting."

My son, I'll call him Roy, has always had an affinity for animals. I believe he chose animals as his best friends because they gave the understanding and love which he sought but didn't get since he was hyperactive and unable to control his impulses. In school he displeased the teachers and was constantly being punished. I was at my wits end not understanding why he didn't learn from past experiences. He was angry at adults whom he must have felt did not recognize the force of his driving urges.

When Roy was six he asked for a cat, but we vetoed his request. "You're too young to take care of it and it will be another expense," I said. "Besides, we already have a dog." Our dog, however, was really my husband's dog.

Next Roy brought home a frog, but it didn't survive. He wrote a note, "my frog is ded (dead)," and shut himself in his room to mourn. Then he asked, "If I catch a squirrel, can I keep it as a pet?"

It seemed safe to say, "Yes." How could a little boy catch a creature like the black squirrels that raced up and down our maple trees? Roy went off with his bait--a piece of bread tied to a string that was bound to a long stick. I smiled at his tactics, surmising that he planned to hide until the squirrel was munching on the bread and then pounce to catch it.

What a surprise! Roy returned with a baby squirrel swinging from his belt which he'd wrapped around the wee animal. The thought of rabies flashed into my mind, but I ruled that out when I saw the condition of the tail--bushy except where the fur had been torn away from its tail shaft, possibly the work of a dog or cat.

Roy named the squirrel Fuzzy, and, on our back porch, we made a house for him out of a box with a screen on top. We borrowed a doll's bottle and filled it with sugar water, which Roy held while the patient sucked the sustenance. We sprinkled some sunflower seeds into the box. Every day Fuzzy got more active, and then one morning he was gone. He'd become strong enough to push aside the screen cover. Roy was heart-broken until he accepted our compliments that he'd saved Fuzzy and that as a wild animal the squirrel needed to be free. For a few years that squirrel, with no fur on its tail, was around our neighborhood. He took peanuts from Roy's hand, and Roy was sure that Fuzzy remembered him as his best friend.

After our first dog died, Roy chose the next dog, a male Border Collie. Though Roy taught him tricks, he teased Charlie roughly, as if to prove his manly power. The dog seemed to know that Roy was a child and didn't react aggressively, but he'd escape from being near Roy whenever possible. We had to supervise their times together, and Roy was disappointed that he didn't have his own special pal.

Then Roy came home with a small cat. "Please, please can I keep her?" He'd made a bed in his dresser drawer. We obliged this time, said "yes" he could keep her if no one claimed the cat as their missing pet. We didn't realize that shortly she'd produce two kittens, one of which we found a home for and the second we said our daughter could keep. Roy's cat turned out to be a blessing. Roy made sure she had water, was fed and had a clean litter box. This mottled brown, white and orange cat, named MomMom, ran to him when he arrived home. When Roy was unhappy, which was quite often, he'd gather up his cat and shut the two of them in his room. If I peeked in, the cat would be purring as Roy stroked her, both of them relaxed on his bed. MomMom seemed to know that Roy needed love and companionship. She helped him to let go his frustration.

Literature supports my view that pets are good for kids. Dr. Alan Beck, director of the Center for The Human-Animal Bond at Purdue University, has studied relationships between pets and children. "Nearly half of adults and 70 percent of the children we looked at confide in their animals," he is quoted as saying in the Reader's Digest article by John Keating, July 2001. "Pets don't judge. Animals give feedback in the form of unconditional love. Taking care of animals also boosts self-esteem by giving kids a helper's high. They learn to go beyond caring just for themselves."

The "World Edition" of BBC News, 14 June 2002, 27 August 2002 and 10 October 2004 reported studies by Dr. June McNicholas at Warwick University indicating that children with pets have more immunoglobulin A (IgA); they have stronger immune systems; and they miss less school. An article published in the Journal of the American Medical Association reports that of 474 healthy babies born in Detroit "children exposed to two or more indoor pets were half as likely to develop common allergies."

When considering the family pet, remember it's a long-term responsibility. Consult veterinarians and others to find the right pet for your space, lifestyle, finances and family pet allergies. If you can't own a pet, visit pets belonging to friends or in animal shelters, learn about wild birds and other animals that live in your neighbourhood.

Summary: Animals have a positive influence on a child's development. Pets give children companionship, improve their self-esteem, foster responsibility and teach about birth and death. Studies show that children with pets are healthier. Select the right pet for your lifestyle.

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