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11.26.15 6:00 AM ET

Can Dogs Prevent Anxiety in Kids?

A new study shows that kids with dogs are less anxious—the latest evidence of the beneficial “pet effect.”

Dogs are the centerpieces of many families: the jokers, the playful ones, the troublemakers. But what if their presence does something more serious—like prevent anxiety in kids?

It’s this question that researchers explored in a study titled Pet Dogs and Children’s Health: Opportunities for Chronic Disease Prevention, released on Wednesday. In it, scientists from New York’s Bassett Medical Center assessed 643 children above 18 months old (with an average age of 6.7 years) to catalog the anxiety levels of those with and without dogs.

Before enrolling in the study, the children underwent a series of screenings to control for physical activity, screen time, general mental health, and pet-related questions. Of the 58 percent of the group who had dogs at home, just 12 percent tested positive on a screening test for anxiety. In the other group, positive tests for anxiety were seen in 21 percent.

While the study in no way shows a causal relationship between the two, the researchers suggest it’s an indicator that more studies on the subject are warranted. Anne M. Gadomski, a researcher at the Bassett Medical Center and 30-year veteran of pediatrics, says she regularly saw babies whose first word was their dog’s name. The concept that perhaps this attachment to dogs could be beneficial to children gave her hope.

“This is more about anxiety symptoms and trying to look at ways of preventing child obesity and childhood mental illness,” Gadomski tells me. The assessment showed an association between dogs and lower anxiety in kids, but why this relationship exists is something she says still needs to be studied. “It’s giving us a direction for future studies,” she says.

“Interacting with a friendly dog also reduces cortisol levels, most likely through oxytocin release, which lessens physiologic responses to stress,” the researchers suggest. “These hormonal effects may underlie the observed emotional and behavioral benefits of animal-assisted therapy and pet dogs.”

The concept of dogs actually preventing anxiety or obesity in kids is still very much in the exploratory stages, but the potential for treatment that companion animals offer is well studied. Nonprofit research and education organization The Human Animal Bond Research Initiative has cataloged all of the studies, which show that owning a pet can cause improvements in mental, social, and psychological health status.

To be sure, the science world is not fully in agreement about this concept. In a paper from August 2011, research professor Dr. Harold Herzog refers to the “pet effect” as an “unsubstantiated hypothesis” rather than a fact.

“I think that it has been overly hyped by the media,” he tells me. “Many of the studies are flawed. Some studies do show a positive impact of pet ownership. However, other studies have found no effect or even negative effects.” Herzog argues that studies showing no or negative impact on pets are less likely to be published, which misleads the public.

Herzog commends Gadomski’s team for using such a large sample size and controls but says the study “raises concerns.” One of the biggest: selective reporting. Although there was a positive relationship between dogs and anxiety, there was nothing statistically significant that showed a difference in body mass index (an indicator of obesity). Furthermore, no statistical significance resulted from comparing kids with cats, which the paper does not mention outright.

“Researchers need to publish studies with positive and negative findings and that media needs to present more balanced coverage of studies on the impact of pets on human health and the effectiveness of animals-assisted therapies,” says Herzog. He points to a June 2015 study published in the journal Anthrozoos, which found little evidence to support the idea that pet ownership is associated with lower rates of loneliness.

Gadomski says that in order to resolve outstanding questions, further research is needed—research she hopes will continue. “You have to give kids the best tools,” she says. “I don’t want people running out to buy a dog, but there could be important effects we’re missing—and anything we can do to prevent these illnesses should be explored.”