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Do Cats Have The Same Effects On Children As Dogs?

Veterinarian Reviewed by Dr. Janice Huntingford, DVM on April 5, 2018
Posted in Behavior Management

Many studies have examined the impact dogs have on the health of children. In most cases, the results are overwhelmingly positive. According to a Canadian study conducted last year, kids who grow up with dogs are less likely to develop allergies and obesity. Two years prior, researchers from the Bassett Institute in New York found that dogs may improve the mental and emotional health of children as well.

Parents of kids without dogs were more likely to report that their children were noticeably shy and did not like going to school. Clinical levels of anxiety were observed in 21% of children without dogs compared to just 12% of children with dogs.

A team led by Dr. Moira Riley recently tested whether or not cats had a similar effect on the mental health of children.

Not The Results They Expected

Much to their surprise, the results of the study showed that children with cats were actually more likely to be diagnosed with mental health problems than children without cats.  Pediatricians, as well as Veterinarians, have been quick to point out the small sample size of this test and the general lack of similar cat related tests.

The study compared 180 children who lived with cats to 463 who did not. Children with cats were almost three times more likely to have been diagnosed with a mental health problem. The former group also displayed significantly more difficulties paying attention. A higher likelihood of anxiety was not displayed in children with cats, but neither was a lower likelihood of anxiety.

Making the results even more perplexing is the fact that the researchers controlled for factors that might make a child more prone to mental health problems, like poverty or having parents with a history of mental illness.

Support From Previous Research

While this is possibly the first study to find a potential link between mental health problems and children with cats, it is not the first to link mental health problems and cat owners in general. In 2011, Dutch researchers discovered that elderly cat owners were more likely to use mental health services than elderly people without pets. Women who owned cats were more likely to be heavy drinkers than women without cats, a 2016 study found.

These two studies may explain why children with cats are more likely to have mental health problems. If a parent with a cat has mental health problems, the problem is likely to be passed on to his or her child. In other words, the mental health problem of the child might have nothing to do with the cat itself. Then again, this just begs the question of whether the parent was more or less mentally ill before the cat was acquired.

Another theory is that certain natural traits of cats might rub off on their owners, especially people who have been around cats since birth. Cats are not known for their social skills and teaching such skills to cats usually isn’t as easy as teaching them to dogs. It’s also hard to deny the typical independent, self-serving attitude of cats. It wouldn’t exactly be a shock to learn that kids who grow up with cats have trouble interacting with others.

One Undeniably Positive Outcome

As Pediatricians and Veterinarians suggest we exercise caution over these results it is certain that more research is needed before any definitive connections can be drawn between cats and mental health problems in children or adults. But studies like this are crucial for research on cats in general, which is very minimal compared to dogs. Interesting suggestions must be drawn from current studies in order for further, larger studies to take place and level the playing field in terms of scientific information for the two most popular pets in the world.

Read also: Attention Cat Owners: Your Pet Wants You, Not More Food!

Our Expert

Dr. Janice Huntingford
Janice Huntingford, DVM, has been in veterinary practice for over 30 years and has founded two veterinary clinics since receiving her Doctor of Veterinary Medicine at the Ontario Veterinary College, University of Guelph. She has studied extensively in both conventional and holistic modalities. Ask Dr. Jan

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