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Cats Can Improve the Mental and Physical Health of Kids

By Jennifer Viegas

Cats Can Improve the Mental and Physical Health of Kids

Cats have always possessed a coolness factor. Uber-hip jazz artists were called “hep cats.” Felines grace billboards, conveying a sexy chic. Over the years, however, this coolness has somehow become confused with danger, perhaps because movie villains seem to favor felines, and Halloween evokes the old “bad luck” stereotype. It’s time that cats shed this dangerous reputation, because the truth is cats are good for us -- especially for kids.

If you don’t have a cat yet, you might reconsider adopting one. If you do already share your digs with a cat, the latest research should reinforce your fondness for your feline pal.

Cats Safeguard Against Respiratory Illness
In recent research published in the journal Pediatrics, Dr. Eija Bergroth, a pediatrician at Kuopio University Hospital in Finland, studied 397 children from their birth onward. A diary was kept for each child, mentioning the frequency of respiratory symptoms and infections, together with info about dog and cat contacts during the first year of life.

Kids that were in contact with dogs and cats had fewer instances of infection and, as a result, required fewer antibiotic treatments. (Antibiotics can, of course, come in handy, but they do sometimes have undesired side effects, such as nausea and rashes.) Children even had a lower risk of dying from infection, with the decrease associated with time spent with pets. As Bergroth and her team wrote, “both the weekly amount of contact with dogs and cats and the average yearly amount of contact were associated with decreased respiratory infectious disease morbidity.” They added: “Our findings support the theory that during the first year of life, animal contacts are important, possibly leading to better resistance to infectious respiratory illnesses during childhood.”

The researchers speculate that “animal contacts could help to mature the immunologic system.” It’s therefore possible that early exposure to pets stimulates growing human bodies to jumpstart the immune system, which can then better kick into action to ward off illnesses with a health boost that could extend into adulthood. Some individuals are allergic to pet dander; for these people, the problems probably would outweigh the benefits, but the majority of people are not allergic to cats.

Cats May Help Prevent Cancer
Tied to the “cats are dangerous” stereotype is a misrepresentation of feline research over the years. Over the past several months, for example, tabloid-like headlines have falsely linked cats to cancer and even craziness. Marion Vittecoq of the Tour du Valat research center actually worked on the cancer-related research, and even she and her colleagues conclude that cats should not be blamed for human cancer. In fact, studies show just the opposite.

Vittecoq says that “studies that have focused on the link between cancer and cat ownership so far have found either no association at all or a reduced risk of cancer in cat owners.” Vittecoq and colleague Frederic Thomas mention a National Institutes of Health Study by G.J. Tranah and colleagues. It found that dog and cat owners have a reduced risk of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. The longer the duration of pet ownership was, the less chance the individual would suffer from this type of cancer.

Cats Promote Good Mental Health Too
So far, we’ve been addressing how cats can benefit our physical health. Studies also show that felines are good for our mental health too. For example, psychologists at Miami University and Saint Louis University conducted multiple experiments to see how pet ownership affects people. Almost 400 individuals -- with pets and without -- participated.

“We observed evidence that pet owners fared better, both in terms of well-being outcomes and individual differences, than non-owners on several dimensions,” said lead researcher Allen R. McConnell of Miami University in Ohio. “Specifically, pet owners had greater self-esteem, were more physically fit, tended to be less lonely, were more conscientious, were more extraverted, tended to be less fearful and tended to be less preoccupied than non-owners.”

We haven’t even mentioned the other positive aspects of pet ownership, such as comfort, companionship and a pleasant, vibrant life force to share one’s days with. The fact that felines may also improve our mental and physical health is merely sweetening, so to speak, the already sweet kitty.

Cats have always possessed a coolness factor. Uber-hip jazz artists were called “hep cats.” Felines grace billboards, conveying a sexy chic. Over the years, however, this coolness has somehow become confused with danger, perhaps because movie villains seem to favor felines, and Halloween evokes the old “bad luck” stereotype. It’s time that cats shed this dangerous reputation, because the truth is cats are good for us -- especially for kids.

If you don’t have a cat yet, you might reconsider adopting one. If you do already share your digs with a cat, the latest research should reinforce your fondness for your feline pal.

Credit: Infographe_Elle    

Jennifer Viegas is the managing editor of The Daily Cat. She is a journalist for Discovery News, the news service for the Discovery Channel, and has written more than 20 books on animals, health and other science-related topics.


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