Children with Pets Have Better Mental Health

Ken Tudor, DVM
Published: October 06, 2015
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Chad is a yellow Labrador autism trained service dog. He joined the Vaccaro family in Manhattan to help protect 11-year old Milo Vaccaro while out in public. Milo had a tendency to have tantrums and try to run away when out in crowds. Milo’s autism also makes it difficult for him to communicate and make social bonds. Chad has changed all of that.

Claire Vaccaro, Milo’s mom, happily shared this with New York Times reporter, Carla Baranauckas:

“Within, I would say, a week, I noticed enormous changes. More and more changes have happened over the months as their bond has grown. He’s much calmer. He can concentrate for much longer periods of time. It’s almost like a cloud has lifted.”

Ms. Baranauckas further reported in the article:


Dr. Melissa A. Nishawala, clinical director of the autism-spectrum service at the Child Study Center at New York University, said she saw “a prominent and noticeable change” in Milo, even though the dog just sat quietly in the room. “He started to give me narratives in a way he never did,” she said, adding that most of them were about the dog.

The changes have been so profound that Ms. Vaccaro and Dr. Nishawala are starting to talk about weaning Milo from some of his medication.

Chad and Milo are just one of many stories in which pets have been found to help children with significant psychological disorders.

A study by Barbara Wood at Capital University showed that children with severe emotional handicaps measurably improved when therapy included a pet. Green Chimneys has had great success with neglected children or those with a history of extreme physical and emotional abuse by using farm and wild animals in their treatment programs.

Green Chimneys is group of “farm campuses” in the state of New York that accepts children with severe emotional handicaps from psychiatric institutions and the New York State school districts. Treatment includes responsibility for caring for healthy animals and rehabilitating injured livestock and wildlife.

Students act as handlers when the animals are taken to inner-city neighborhood schools for special programs. They also act as guides for the 30,000 school children who visit annually to experience farm life. Dr. Ross, who founded the school in 1948, says of the program at Green Chimneys:

''For many children whose nurturing has been faulty, taking care of an animal can interrupt the cycle of abuse repeating itself over generations,'' he said. ''They can learn to be care-givers, even if they haven't been well cared for themselves.

''It's an especially powerful experience for these kids, who are wounded themselves in a sense,'' Dr. Ross said. ''If you can take care of a disabled animal and see that it can survive, even with a leg missing, then you get the feeling you can survive yourself. It's a bit corny, but true.''

But the help that pets provide emotionally and psychologically is not restricted to those with problems or illness. Studies show that pets provide help to normal children as well.

  • Studies have linked family ownership of a pet with higher self-esteem and greater cognitive development in young children.
  • Children with pets at home have significantly higher scores on scales for empathy and social skills.
  • One study of a group of 100 children under 13 years of age who owned cats found that more than 80% said they got along better with family and friends.
  • A survey study found that 70% of families reported increased family happiness and fun after getting a pet.

I think much of the profound effect that pets have on children’s health, learning skills, and emotional development is because they are not “just pets” but are non-judgmental, unconditional, loving members of our families. Pets help families grow stronger and closer. Child development specialist Dr. Gail F. Melson sums it up best:

"Whenever I ask children and parents if their pets are truly part of the family, most of them seem surprised—and almost offended—at the question," Dr. Melson says. The most common response: "Of course they are!"

Dr. Ken Tudor