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The guy who leaves his dog's poop outside of my house every morning notwithstanding, having a pet may actually help you become a better person, according to new research published in the Journal of Applied Developmental Science.
While more than 20 years of science has looked at the health benefits humans reap from having a pet, including lowering blood pressure and anxiety and preventing allergies in kids, until now, not much research has been done on the impact animals have on their owners' character. This recent work found that caring for a pet increased empathy, leadership, and social engagement. "As the field of how human and animal health interact becomes more rigorous, people are starting to discover how important pets are in our lives," author Megan K. Mueller, who is a developmental psychologist and a professor at the Tufts School of Veterinary Medicine, tells Yahoo Shine.
Mueller has worked with Tufts Paws for People – a program that brings therapy animals (including her own black lab, Jett) into nursing homes, afterschool reading classes, hospitals, and other settings where they can provide a little companionship and affection – and recently helped set up a campus event where students were invited to de-stress during final exams with four therapy dogs. The organizers expected 30 kids, and were surprised when 200 showed up. "The students told us how much they missed their pets and how much they helped them unwind," says Mueller, who adds that although there has been a lot of research showing the benefits of animals for children in a therapeutic environment, she wanted to investigate the kind of good stuff that happens between people and their pets in everyday life.
The study looked at data collected from more than 500 adults aged 18 to 26 and found that those who cared for pets were likely to help their friends and families and be active in their communities. It also found that those who said they had a strong attachment to their pets as teens showed more confidence and empathy in general. "[The] findings suggest that individuals who are highly involved in caring for an animal or participating in an animal-focused activity are also contributing more broadly to their families, communities, and schools, an important aspect of becoming an active and engaged member of the community."
Mueller stresses that the findings reveal a correlation (not a cause), and further investigation still needs to be done. "We have to tease out what the processes and mechanisms are. For instance, do people want to have pets because they enjoy taking care of others?" The work also suggests that the social skills that humans develop through being with animals may translate to how they interact with other people.
About 68 percent of American families include at least one animal, and Mueller points out that simply having an animal around does not guarantee a psychological or emotional bonus. And since, in some households, pets are neglected, mistreated, or worse, whether or not people actively nurture their pets makes all the difference. If parents are considering getting a family pet, it makes sense to ensure that children participate in their care, says Mueller. "It's not just about the presence of the animals; it's about the quality and nature of that relationship."
— Sarah B. Weir
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