"Can Fido and Whiskers enrich children’s lives?" a New York Times blogger asked recently. For plenty of pet-owning parents, the logical follow-up question is: "Was there ever any doubt?"
Studies cited by the Times found that "perinatal pets, especially dogs, may reduce the development of allergic disease" and "walking a dog may contribute to a physically active lifestyle" -- but mostly, "research is still limited." However, many believe there are broader lessons kids (and, let's face it, even adults) can learn from animal interaction.
It's hard to grow up persnickety about your appearance if there's a mud-loving, fun-seeking dog traipsing in and out of the house. A loyal cat can teach kids the value of quiet companionship, while a friendly pet (of either sort) sets a good example by purposefully seeking out and winning over uncomfortable guests. And don't forget that living with a pet makes children mindful of the neatness and relative safety of their surroundings -- since pets, like toddlers, are likely to get themselves into trouble if you give them the tools they need.
Below is a list from the HuffPost Parents community of the most important values children can draw from household dogs and cats (based on fairly nonscientific observation) along with their adorable photos. Click to add your own or tell us what we missed in the comments!
"[My dog taught my baby] How to love." -- Sarah W. Babies and toddlers are already expert cuddlers. The hope, of course, is that by having a snuggable furry friend in the house, the chances of kids enjoying hugs and kisses from mommy <em>after</em> the age of 10 might increase -- by at least one squeeze per week.
"We refer to [our son] as 'the dog whisperer.' Having a dog has taught him to share (especially at dinner time)!" - Sadie K. Pets, unlike kids, never really grow out of needing to be taken care of. Which means children learn how to care for another living creature, even when it means giving up a beloved stuffed animal when it is commandeered to be a teething toy -- or some precious floor space.
"My daughter has learned how to crawl with the help of our dog, as well as how to bark (and unfortunately beg)." - Bonnie L. We already know that <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/01/22/dogs-looking-out-windows_n_1217385.html" target="_hplink">dogs love to look out the window</a>. And, when kids take the time to gaze outside with a four-legged friend, they're learning an important skill -- how to tune out everyday noise and get lost in a daydream.
Pets teach kids that meaningful experiences don't always need to involve conversation. A quiet afternoon with a playful cat or lazy puppy shows children that there's more to relationships than words: just being together -- watching, listening, and caring for another person or animal -- is enough.
Dogs smile. Cats are curious about the world around them. (Sometimes <em>too</em> curious.) Nobody says you have to be happy all the time -- but would you rather your kid grew up to idolize teenage nonchalance, or the boundless enthusiasm of your family pet?
"[My dog teaches my baby] to feel safe." -- Sarah H. For the love of Mom and Dad, take a good nap. And may solid daytime sleep lead you to restful nights. While babies may have <a href="http://www.amazon.com/Go-F-Sleep-Adam-Mansbach/dp/1617750255" target="_hplink">a bad reputation</a> for not learning this lesson well, seeing their animal friends -- who are nap masters -- just might help them learn how important it is to get a solid <a href="http://www.webmd.com/parenting/guide/sleep-children" target="_hplink">10 to 12 hours of sleep every night until the age of 12</a>. (That's when kids, like grown-ups, start to need only the standard eight.)
"My kids have learned patience, kindness, and responsiblity from our pets. They have also, sadly, learned about death. ... Sad to lose our sweet pets, but a good introduction into the idea of life and death for our kids." - Kirstin Mix As Lindsay Cross wrote in a blog post on Mommyish, <a href="http://mommyish.com/childrearing/newsflash-pets-dont-just-help-social-skills-they-teach-responsibility-458/" target="_hplink">one of the most obvious lessons kids learn from having pets is responsibility</a>. Cross writes: "Having two dogs to take care of has taught my daughter an amazing amount of responsibility that I might never have been able to instill this early on." Parents who succeed in getting their children to take on key pet-rearing tasks will teach their children the importance of reliability (oh yeah, and get out of feeding the dog every once in a while).
"Dogs know if you're scared of them" -- we've all heard that before. Whether or not there's science to back it up, to pet owners -- and certainly, to people who are actually afraid of dogs -- it seems true. Pets often win over so-called "scaredy-cats," if given enough time. The lesson: Fend off your instinct to lash out at someone who doesn't understand you, <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/devon-corneal/when-my-son-became-a-biter_b_1379832.html" target="_hplink">even if you're going through a biting phase</a>. Look out for people who feel uncomfortable (new kids at school, for instance) -- and show them that you think they're worth getting to know.
"Outdoor play is beneficial for motor development, vision, cognition, Vitamin D levels and mental health," Pooja Tandon, of Seattle Children's Research Institute <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/04/04/preschool-activities_n_1401221.html" target="_hplink">recently told The Huffington Post</a>. Get a dog or an outdoors cat, and the time your family spends outside will likely increase exponentially -- first out of necessity, but more and more out of pure enjoyment. For one thing, there's no mistaking the joy on an animal's face when he or she is liberated from the confines of a stuffy house. The dog-walking and ball-throwing that start as chores will probably turn into family tradition or routine. At a time when <a href="http://archpedi.ama-assn.org/cgi/content/short/archpediatrics.2011.1835" target="_hplink">fewer children are getting to play outside</a>, the increased exercise will be a huge added plus.
Because it feels good. Because <a href="http://blogs.babble.com/kid-scoop/2012/02/22/kids-should-be-doing-yoga/?pid=3970#slideshow" target="_hplink">little muscles need to be properly cared for</a>. Because in a metaphorical sense, it means that you should always go just a little bit outside of your comfort zone. Who better to teach kids the very essential skill of stretching? The animal who gives its name to yoga's most basic moves, "downward dog," "puppy pose," and the arched back "cat," of course.
Just because a dog has teeth, doesn't mean she'll bite. Ditto for cats and nails. Even if your pet isn't big and tough, it takes time to learn these things, but once your child does, he or she will have discovered one of the most important facts of life. Having these creatures in the house, who don't speak human, is just one big fantastic reminder that something or someone who looks different certainly isn't scary -- and just might become your best friend.
"JR, at the ripe age of 4 months, has learned from his Pug Brother that tongues are just as effective as baths for cleaning." -- Abbie P. We're not suggesting that all household animals are pristine -- far from it. (Indeed, with many pets, the question isn't whether or not the animal smells, but what, exactly, the animal smells <em>like</em>. Seafood? Garbage? Stinky feet? Mold?) Mysterious perfumes notwithstanding, most animals do make an effort to preen or groom themselves regularly. We have to hope kids get the message that it's good to at least <em>want</em> to look your best.
"This is my daughter just after her 1st birthday looking over our balcony. This kid has no fear of dogs and will walk right up to every dog she sees if we let her." - Melissa Versen For people with furry pets, leaving the house without sporting a single animal hair -- or, more realistically, a substantial coating of the stuff -- is pretty much an impossible dream. And more often than not, getting out of the house with <em>only</em> hair on your clothes is a break; loving pets with dirty paws or slobbery lips are hard to turn away. Having affectionate but messy animals around teaches you to stop worrying about being perfect and just let things go.
"K, now 3, has learned how to be gentle with his doggy friend Belle, which has come in handy this year when his little brother was born." - Sarah W. No matter how badly kids want to pull their tails, pat them on their adorable puppy heads or tackle a kitty, animals demand a gentle touch. And, on the flip side, having a yippy or bark-happy dog might persuade a child going through a tantrum phase to embrace a new appreciation for peace and quiet.
"Kitty keeps S's glance which has been wonderful practice for tracking objects and muscle control." -- kimonox
"She has learned to share food and how to pet nicely." - Sarah H. Pets have feelings too, and when they get sad or tired , it's up to their owners to be supportive. As all good friends know, sometimes that means being a distraction. Unsurprising, babies and kids have this approach down.
Dogs may be known for being able to guard people and their possessions, but their fierce loyalty is also a reminder to care for friends who can't stand up for themselves.
Perhaps this one goes without saying, but all pet owners know it's true. Dogs love you as much when you're sad or tired as they do when you're having a great day. And the style of love we learn from them -- warm, generous, active, loyal -- is eminently transferable.
<a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/social/Sharon_Raghavachary"><img style="float:left;padding-right:6px !important;" src="http://graph.facebook.com/652318791/picture?type=square" /></a><a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/social/Sharon_Raghavachary">Sharon Raghavachary</a>:<br />Our dog Teddy has taught Becky how to pose for the camera!
<a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/social/Sherri_Anderson_Salgado"><img style="float:left;padding-right:6px !important;" src="http://graph.facebook.com/575195006/picture?type=square" /></a><a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/social/Sherri_Anderson_Salgado">Sherri Anderson Salgado</a>:<br />Growing up with pets has taught my sons compassion and responsibility..when we found Elvis starving at a gas station, little did we know he would grow to be this large..if we had it to do again, we would not change a thing!
<a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/social/Siobhan_Green"><img style="float:left;padding-right:6px !important;" src="http://graph.facebook.com/583777996/picture?type=square" /></a><a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/social/Siobhan_Green">Siobhan Green</a>:<br />Anthony and our dog Delta on a farm in Pennsylvania. Delta was a rescue dog