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How pets take care of children

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A dog, cat, guinea pig or iguana can be a child's best friend in ways you might not expect. Research shows how pets can benefit a child's physical and emotional well-being.

It's easy to see how pets can teach children responsibility. A child as young as 3 can be responsible for giving pets water, and older children can take on tasks like walking the dog.

"Accomplishing tasks appropriate to their age, when taking care of the pet with their parents, makes a child feel more competent," according to child development experts Nienke Endenburg and Ben Baarda.

In addition to increasing self-efficacy, having pets can develop a child's relationship skills, especially empathy, The Washington Post reported. "The reason is obvious: Caring for a pet draws a self-absorbed child away from himself or herself."

"Hearing a kitten yowl when it wants to eat or seeing a dog run to the door when it wants to go outside get kids to think, 'What are their needs, and what can I do to help?’ ” according to the Post.

Pets can also reduce stress, the Post reported. Researchers at the National Childhood Grief Institute studied children playing with therapy dogs. When the children petted the dogs, they visibly relaxed, and their blood pressure dropped. Interestingly, the dogs' blood pressure was also reduced during these interactions.

Babies who interact with pets, especially dogs, are exposed to beneficial bacteria that reduce the chance of developing allergies, the Dallas Morning News reported. Researchers from the University of California San Francisco tested the gut bacteria of babies with and without dogs at home.

"For infants without pets, the gut’s bacterial flora (growth) was linked to allergic disease development at age 2, which differed when compared to the gut flora of infants with canine friends," according to Dr. Susan Lynch.

Children with autism benefit from interactions with pets, according to a study by researchers from the University of Missouri. The study focused on communication, cooperation, responsibility, empathy, engagement, self-control and assertion for children ages 8-18 with autism.

Researchers concluded that "the social skills of children with autism — particularly in the area of assertion — increased over time when there was a companion animal present, while problem behaviors decreased," according to a report by the Mohave Valley Daily News.