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Teacher's Pet [20/06/2002]

Children from pet-owning families spend significantly more time at school than those that don't have a pet, and have more stable immune systems, according to research released last week.

However, whilst the study has demonstrated the benefits of the close physical relationship that children have with their pets, it also highlighted the need to take greater precautions against the risk of zoonotic infections (those that can be passed from animals to people).

As part of the research, carried out by University of Warwick health psychologist Dr. June McNicholas, and Novartis Animal Health, 138 children were asked to spit into sample tubes. Their saliva was then tested for levels of Immunoglobulin A (IgA), an antibody used as a general indicator of immune system function. At the same time, school absenteeism data was collected for all children in the study.

Dr. McNicholas said: "Pet ownership was significantly associated with better school attendance rates. This was apparent across all classes, but was most pronounced in the lower school (classes 1-3, age groups 5-8). Here, the pet owners benefited from up to 18 extra half days schooling per annum than their non pet owning counterparts."

Tests of immune function also demonstrated surprising results. Levels of IgA outside an expected 'normal' range suggest that the immune system is being actively challenged by infection (too high), or is vulnerable to infection (too low). Results of this study showed that IgA levels amongst pet owners were significantly less variable from the normal range. In other words, their immune function was more stable, and indicates that these children were better able to fend off illness.

But before parents start tripping over each other in a mad rush for the pet store, a word of caution. Whilst pets may help strengthen our immune systems, they can also transmit zoonotic infections which we may not be able to fight off.

Dr. McNicholas explained: "Toxocara canis, or roundworm, is the principle risk in the UK. This parasite is 'caught' by humans when they accidentally ingest roundworm eggs shed by an infected dog, and can cause anything from a stomach-ache to eye damage."

The study demonstrated the intensely close physical relationship between pets and children. Whilst this may be partly responsible for the some of the health benefits noted in the test group, it also places them at greater risk of accidentally ingesting roundworm eggs.

When asked about when the child looked for the company of the pet, the answers were as follows:

  • 40% went to their pet if they felt bored
  • 32% went to their pet of they felt scared (most dogs)
  • 53% had their pet with them when watching TV/videos
  • 37% had their pet with them when they were reading/doing homework
  • 28% looked for their pet when they had had an argument with the family
  • 40% looked to their pet if they were upset
  • 85% went to their pet as a playmate
  • 34% went to their pet if they were tired
  • 33% went to their pet if they felt poorly

Handling

  • Less than 4% of children do not handle their pet in some way.
  • 98% cuddle their pet
  • 96% stroke their pet
  • 80% kiss their pet

Food sharing
When asked if the children ever shared food with the pet, the answers were as follows:

  • 38% shared snacks, crisps etc with their pets when watching TV.
  • 28% shared food with their pets if they thought they weren't being seen to do so
  • 21% let their pets lick their fingers after sharing food.
  • 16% shared food with their pets at mealtimes / at table

Playing

  • 97% of children reported playing with their pets.
  • 38% of children played with or hid their pet in their bed.
  • 21.1% of children played
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