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Do Pets Help Kids in Foster Care?

Children in treatment foster care in Wisconsin and around the country are a vulnerable population as a result of their early life circumstances. According to Zill N, Bramlett MD, children in foster care experience more depression/anxiety, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and behavioral/conduct problems than children living with 2 biological parents and children living with never-married biological single mothers. Although thousands of studies have suggested that pets benefit people with mental health problems, few studies have been done on the benefits of pets in foster homes and the possible benefits foster kids get from animals.

Pets offer foster children acceptance without judgment

We all know the positive effects that cats, dogs, horses, goats, even fish can have on our lives. Is it safe to assume, without significant research, that having a pet may offer kids in foster care, especially those with significant trauma or mental illness a sense of ontological security? CCR foster parents with pets in the home and those with farm animals tell us that their foster children benefit from having animal relationships. If you are exploring how to become a foster parent and worry that you won't qualify to be a foster parent because of your pets or animals, please trust us; it is good for the kids! Pets provide acceptance without judgment and offer kids in foster care dependable relationships with little risk. Let's explore some of the ways our Wisconsin foster parents and CCR professionals agree that animal relationships benefit kids in foster care.

Animals are a positive distraction for kids in foster care

The enduring relationship between humans and domestic animals is well documented and there are an estimated 86 million owned cats and 78 million owned dogs. Sixty-eight percent of U.S.households, or about 85 million families, own a pet, according to the 2017-2018 National Pet Owners Survey conducted by the American Pet Products Association (APPA). It's no secret that pets provide unconditional support and acceptance, which many foster children have not received from family or social relationships in the past. Having a pet in the home can have a calming effect on children and often forces them to connect and engage with their foster parents and siblings more quickly than a home without animals. Communication and interaction may be more natural when animals are used as a buffer or a shared common interest. Pets can serve as a positive distraction from symptoms and upsetting experiences that a child may have had prior to being placed in foster care. Many foster children feel comfort and acceptance from a pet long before developing those same feelings with their new foster family.

Foster children caring for animals generates a sense of order and continuity

Caring for a pet can provide foster children with a feeling of being in control as well as feelings of security and routine. Providing kids with some responsibility in the care of animals generates a sense of order and continuity to their day-to-day activities. Caring for pet animals provides children with the experience of taking responsibility for another living being, may support the development of empathy and has been shown to relate to more humane attitudes later in life. Simple chores such as feeding a cat before school, cleaning a cage or stall on a weekend morning, even brushing the family dog gives kids a feeling of responsibility, which often fosters an attachment to the said animal and generates feelings of respect by their new family.  A study conducted by Darlene Kertes of the University of Florida suggests that pet dog presence significantly buffers the perceived stress response in children. The results support the notion that pet dogs can provide socio-emotional benefits for children. Foster parents tell us that the caring of animals is an immediate way for kids to feel they belong to a new foster family placement.

"When I first got to the "Smiths", I was nervous and I cried a lot. I used to bury my face into Bennie's neck and cry. He let me and never jumped off the bed."

Pets can provide emotional support to both foster parent and child

Research from the University of Missouri-Columbia suggests that the hormonal changes that occur when humans and dogs interact could help people cope with depression and certain stress-related illnesses. In one Missouri study, scientists tested the hormone levels of dog owners and non-owners alike. They found that people received the most benefit (through increased serotonin levels) when petting their own dogs. Also, simply stroking the dog for 15-30 minutes lowered the participants’ blood pressure by 10 percent. A study by Darlene Kertes suggests children who actively solicit their dogs to come and be pet or stroked have lower cortisol levels compared to children who engaged their dogs less. While researchers continue to analyze and determine which types of animal interactions are best for children, attachments to a pet dog may function as a secure base by providing security and stability from which children can explore their environment. It is reported that dogs may help children to regulate their emotions because they can trigger and respond to a child’s attachment-related behavior. How children best benefit from being with pet animals and how often they need to interact with them to get results is something our foster parents can speak about confidently.

"When the girls arrived they were afraid of the goats. Little by little I would take them out just to say hello. After about 6 weeks they began petting them on the head now feeding the goats and helping with chores is part of their routine."

Relationships with pets and animals have an important role in children’s social, emotional, and cognitive development

According to Paul B. Tchounwou, there is growing evidence that animals are capable of offering features of a secure attachment relationship for children and that children can form an emotional attachment with pets that are consistent in some respects with human attachment theory. Pets satisfy the need for comfort and reassurance, assistance, and protection. Attachments to pets may provide security and stability from which children can explore their environment. Furthermore, dogs may help children to regulate their emotions because they can trigger and respond to a child’s attachment-related behavior.
"Susan says she never let Penny on the furniture before I got here. I like it because I can pet him when I watch tv."
While having pets in the home cannot cure mental illness or be a "quick fix" for children with significant trauma, there are enough evidence and testimony to suggest that it does help. Studies have found that people in general with pets reported a greater sense of control, as well as a feeling of security and routine. What is more important, studies have found that adults and older youth who had greater attachment and relationships to animals during childhood demonstrate greater empathy, confidence, and independence in adulthood.
How adults and children respond to stress and cope with trauma is an individual matter. Children in foster care often experience sleep difficulty, headaches, anxiety, social stress, lack of confidence and attachment disorders all of which may be helped by the simple act of caring for or attaching to a family pet.
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