Pet Dogs and Children’s Health: Opportunities for Chronic Disease Prevention?
Introduction: Positive associations between having a pet dog and adult health outcomes have been documented; however, little evidence exists regarding the benefits of pet dogs for young children. This study investigates the hypothesis that pet dogs are positively associated with healthy weight and mental health among children. Methods: This cross-sectional study accrued a consecutive sample of children over 18 months in a pediatric primary care setting. The study enrolled 643 children (mean age, 6.7 years); 96% were white, 45% were female, 56% were privately insured, and 58% had pet dogs in the home. Before an annual visit, parents of children aged 4 to 10 years completed the DartScreen, a comprehensive Web-based health risk screener administered using an electronic tablet. The screener domains were child body mass index (BMI), physical activity, screen time, mental health, and pet-related questions. Results: Children with and children without pet dogs did not differ in BMI (P = .80), screen time of 2 hours or less (P = 0.99), or physical activity (P = .07). A lower percentage of children with dogs (12%) met the clinical cut-off value of Screen for Child Anxiety and Related Disorders (SCARED-5) of 3 or more, compared with children without dogs (21%, P = .002). The mean SCARED-5 score was lower among children with dogs (1.13) compared with children without dogs (1.40; P = .01). This relationship was retained in multivariate analysis after controlling for several covariates. Conclusions: Having a pet dog in the home was associated with a decreased probability of childhood anxiety. Future studies need to establish whether this relationship is causal and, if so, how pet dogs alleviate childhood anxiety.