As a mother to a two-year-old and a high-maintenance bulldog, I am always rather pleased when a new piece of research emerges stating that growing up with dogs (or pets) is somehow beneficial to children. (This is particularly true when I look over and see my daughter inserting our pup's favourite chew toy in her mouth.)
Owning a pet as a child can teach that child important skills such as empathy, sharing, taking responsibility and caring for others
Last month, Finnish researchers declared that their study had found that babies exposed to dogs and cats spent fewer weeks with ear infections, coughs or runny noses, and were less likely to need antibiotics than children in pet-free homes. They concluded that children who spent up to six hours per day at home with a dog were the least likely to get ill, theorising that dirt and allergens brought in by pets are good for babies' immune systems.
According to Battersea Dogs and Cats Home Community Engagement Officer Amy Watson, there are other benefits to growing up with an animal.
"Owning a pet as a child can teach that child important skills such as empathy, sharing, taking responsibility and caring for others," she explains. "Studies have also found that children who grow up with a family pet dog are healthier and have greater self-esteem and cognitive development."
Other benefits for kids raised with pets include improved social skills, a more harmonious family dynamic and health benefits from brisk dog walking. (Studies have found that dogs helped pregnant women achieve their recommended 30 minutes of exercise a day, for example.) Studies have also found that kids who grow up surrounded by animals on farms, for example, have far fewer allergies than the rest of us. My bulldog is looking cuter with every study result I'm hearing.
When it comes to choosing a family pet that's right for you, there are many factors to consider. As Battersea's Amy points out, when selecting a dog: "It is very important to consider the dog's temperament, energy levels and size. Make sure your new dog will suit your family's lifestyle." So while a Golden Retriever may be your dream dog, if you and your family are living in a small flat, that arrangement probably won't be beneficial for you or the dog.
Also, Amy stresses that it's key to find the dog you and your family are most compatible with and not the one whose appearance you fancy the most. I know we made the right decision when I peer over and see my bulldog sunning himself while sleeping in the garden and jealously think my goals in life are remarkably close to the everyday reality he's managed to achieve.
George Packer, head vet at Churchcroft Veterinary Centre in Nottingham, elaborates on what to look for when selecting a family dog. "Most vets would say that an advantage of getting a pedigree dog is that the temperament is more predictable and that's why vets will sometimes recommend pedigrees. Mongrels can be wonderful but you don't always quite know what you are getting."
If you are committed to getting a rescue dog rather than a pedigree, be sure to choose a reputable animal rescue centre where they will ensure the dog is well-socialised, good with children and has been fully vaccinated. At Battersea, the dog will meet everyone in the household before getting rehomed.
When it comes to selecting a breed, the individual temperament of each dog is of paramount importance, but it is possible to generalise somewhat. George suggests that certain breeds are more often better suited to family life than others. These include: Labradors (if you have the space) who are usually friendly, not highly strung and not easily bothered by noise, and Cavalier King Charles Spaniels (better for smaller spaces), who need less exercise than other spaniels and are often of a more relaxed disposition.
More recently, there has been a trend towards families looking for specific cross-breeds like Labradoodles or Cockerpoos (both Poodle crosses), which don't shed hair and are especially popular with parents suffering from allergies who are trying to find a pet for their children.
A nice, relaxed cat, who won't need as much looking after as a dog, is also a good option for families, and the short-haired Rex breeds are popular for those with pet hair allergies.
When it comes to other family-friendly pets, George recommends hamsters: "They don't smell, only take up a small space and if they're well-handled from a young age, then they're really friendly (and an advantage for parents is that they don't live very long - only two to three years)."
Guinea pigs are also endearing and low-maintenance, but George warns that rabbits - despite their cute, cuddly appearance - are not really recommended for children since, as a rule, they don't like being picked up so they often struggle, can easily can get dropped and end up with broken legs or teeth, and if not dropped, can scratch the children.
Other pets that don't work well for kids include exotic pets (reptiles, spiders, etc), since most of them are not domesticated and need specialist attention. George also warns parents that mice - another popular pet for young children because of their manageable size - can quickly become tedious for parents because they smell terrible.
Sometimes, even when you select a pet you assume will be low-maintenance you may be in for a surprise. After seven years of nagging for a pet from her two children (the family goldfish was no longer doing the trick), mum Karen relented and bought George, a tortoise.
"No fur, no noise, slow and no trouble at all... think again," she says. "George needs 12 hours of light a day, feeding twice a day and to be walked in the garden; he's the fastest, most mischievous tortoise I've seen. I'm constantly losing him as he insists on climbing and squeezing into the smallest places. So I can say he's fit very well into my already high-maintenance family."
That's one of the key factors to remember when getting a pet: is your busy work-life balance able to take on the work and responsibility that an animal will entail?
Pet owners will need to ensure to plan for any trips away from home to make sure there is appropriate care for their pets. Someone will need to check in on them at least once a day and dogs in particular will need exercising. Don't forget to factor in the cost of kennels or a dog sitter when planning your holidays!
When it comes to pets, safety is a key concern and studies have shown that whilst both adults and children can suffer bites from dogs at home, in adults these tend to be on the arm but in children they are frequently around the face and may be more serious.
According to Amy, "Adult supervision is the key here. Unsupervised children can be at a greater risk of being bitten as they are more likely to engage in inappropriate and therefore dangerous behaviour around the dog. Dogs are less likely to react in the presence of adults (particularly their owner)."
In addition, it is important to teach children certain rules about how to behave around pets, specifically dogs. Amy recommends that they should avoid sneaking up on a dog, teasing a dog, staring at a dog, disturbing a dog who is sleeping or eating, assuming a dog wants to play with them and approaching a dog who is without an owner.
From my own experience, having a pet is hard work, and making sure that pet and child get along, don't injure one another and don't eat up each other's toys is a daily battle. But when my daughter wakes up and runs to hug our still-snoozing bulldog every morning, or excitedly points at every dog in the park saying 'Doggie, doggie!' and wanting to approach them to say hello, I know that for me, the benefits have been worth the extra hassle.
Our family just wouldn't be our family without our dog.
The Battersea Code is a series of leaflets aimed specifically at children living with pets.