Studies have shown that interacting with animals relieves stress, causes blood pressure to drop and has other therapeutic benefits. Pets also can play a role in the emotional development of children.
"There are some very real health benefits, probably because of the impact on stress management," said Alan M. Beck, a professor of animal ecology at Purdue University and director of its Center for Human-Animal Bond.
Beck, co-author of "Between Pets and People: The Importance of Animal Companionship," said humans find great comfort in touching animals and talking to them.
"People feel less lonely and honestly believe the animal understands or at least cares," he said. "It changes your behavior, and there's less social isolation."
About two-thirds of all households have some kind of companion animal, and the young and the old appear to benefit the most.
Gail F. Melson, a professor at Purdue's Department of Child Development and Family Studies, said children often turn to pets as a source of emotional support in times of stress. The animals offer social support, help promote nurturing behaviors and can be an important attachment in children's lives.
"This doesn't substitute for the support of humans. I see this as an add-on," said Melson, author of "Why the Wild Things Are: Animals in the Lives of Children."
It's important, she said, to have "practice and experience in caring for something that needs your care and is more helpless and will suffer and die if you don't care for it appropriately." Caring for pets, with guidance and supervision, she said, teaches critical skills that can be applied to the care of the elderly or children.
With the decline in the size of families, Melson said, "most children are not growing up in households where babies are underfoot or where elderly relatives are living under the same roof. . . . We need to think about what experiences are available in children's lives to help develop nurturance."
She cautions, however: "Don't think of pets as panaceas. Don't just get the puppy" and forget about a child's other needs.
Melson said there are alternatives if children are allergic to animals or if parents don't think a pet is appropriate. Exposing children to the living, natural world through gardening or by taking them to parks or a zoo can provide similar benefits.
-- Karlyn Barker