Access to pets may help alleviate anxiety and stress when unexpected traumas occur

As non-judgmental friends and companions, pets provide incredible emotional benefits to our children. Pictured, Mr. Mosley, a cattle dog mix puppy, brings joy and laughter to 2-year-old Maya Lamas, a child with special needs. (Photo courtesy of Kristina Lamas)

Our country has once again seen the tragic and senseless loss of young lives due to a fatal mass shooting at an elementary school. This tragedy occurred on the heels of another mass shooting, provoked by race-based hate, in which ten people went grocery shopping and did not make it out alive. These incidents have occurred while we are still facing potential illness and death of loved ones due to the ongoing pandemic and other horrific emerging diseases.

The fact that it no longer seems safe to breathe, shop for food or send our children to school is terrifying. It is a triple trauma that has taken a huge toll on our collective mental health.

Especially for children, the world these days must seem like a very frightening and unsafe place. My son is 21 years old, but if I had younger children, I would encourage them to talk to our dog Sueshi about their feelings and their fears.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has long advised of the potential health benefits of pets, which include lower blood pressure and decreased feelings of loneliness. Having a dog has also been associated with decreased probability of childhood anxiety.

The National Childhood Grief Institute conducted a study using certified Golden Retrievers in children’s support groups. A therapy dog would sit in front of a child experiencing emotional distress and put its head in the child’s lap. As the child started petting the dog, the child visibly relaxed. The blood pressure readings of both the children and the dogs lowered.

Before I began working in animal welfare, I worked for many years with children and families as a mental health social worker. I think, and research shows, there’s almost no better way to help a child deal with stress than with the company of a loving pet.

Here are a few incredible emotional benefits that pets can bring to children:

  • Healthy distraction from negative emotions and obsessive thoughts
  • Stress and pain relief
  • Elevated mood
  • Non-judgmental friendship and companionship

Prior to the pandemic, Pasadena Humane volunteers took dogs into schools and libraries so that reluctant young readers could have a reading buddy. Learning to read can be stressful for a young child. It’s much less threatening to read to a dog than to read to a teacher or parent. Children can go at their own pace and sound out challenging words without fear of judgment. I look forward to the days when we can resume this program.

One thing is certain with no easy solutions in sight, we will continue to endure more tragedy and disruption to our previous “normal” lives. Those of us with pets, and those without, can use more compassion.

At Pasadena Humane, one of our core values is kindness, which we define as follows: We show compassion, care, respect and empathy to all animals and humans without prejudice or discrimination.

We may not all agree on what to do to solve the problems we face, but I hope we can all agree that more kindness in the world could only help.

Dia DuVernet is president and CEO of Pasadena Humane.

This blog post originally appeared as a column in the Pasadena Star-News on May 27, 2022.