ADHD News & Research

Are Pets Really Good for Your Child’s Health?

A large study contradicts previous research that links pet ownership to positive effects on a child’s physical and mental health.

August 18, 2017

A study of more than 5,000 California households finds that owning a pet has little effect on a child’s physical and psychological health. Rather, studies that found a positive association between pet ownership and health may have failed to account for confounding factors like socioeconomic status, the authors said.

The study was conducted by the RAND Corporation, a nonprofit think tank focusing on health. Using data from the 2003 California Health Interview Survey, researchers identified 5,191 families with a child between the ages of five and 11. Approximately half of those families had a cat or dog, while the other group did not have any pets.

As in previous studies, the researchers found that children whose families owned pets were in better health, both physically and mentally, than children whose families were pet-free. Pet-owning children were more likely to be physically active, and their parents expressed fewer concerns about their emotional or psychological state.

However, once the data was adjusted for confounding factors like family income, parental involvement, and type of housing, the correlation between pet ownership and health was no longer statistically significant. This indicates that any of those factors could be responsible for the children’s improved health.

“We could not find evidence that children from families with dogs or cats are better off either in terms of their mental well-being or their physical health,” said Layla Parast, Ph.D., an author on the study. “Everyone on the research team was surprised — we all have or grew up with dogs and cats. We had essentially assumed from our own personal experiences that there was a connection.”

This doesn’t mean that pets don’t improve a child’s health, the authors said, but rather that there isn’t data to support that conclusion at this point. If the link between pets and health is to truly be explored, Parast said, further research should focus more on long-term outcomes, or randomly assign pets to families to see if children’s health improves. A long-term study on the subject, however, may not be financially feasible, the authors noted.