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Animal Assisted Therapy and Kids

Learn How the Unconditional Love of Pets Can Help Kids Deal with Anxiety and Depression

The pandemic challenged many of us socially and economically. We found ourselves missing the daily human interactions from work, community events, holidays, sports teams, and more. To cope with this loss of contact, Americans started looking for replacements during this unprecedented time. In fact, a record numbers of pets were adopted in 2020.

Dr. Nick Davis is a South Dayton-based board certified family medicine physician with more than 15 years of experience practicing medicine. He understands the dynamic that we experienced in 2020 better than most. As the owner of a concierge medicine practice, Dr. Davis cares for patients in the entire spectrum of family medicine. Some of his patients include families spanning three generations, from adolescents to seniors.

Over the course of the last year, he has seen an increase in anxiety across all ages, but he really focused on ways to help adolescents cope with anxiety and depression.

Some of the ways in which younger kids were struggling centered around school. They were missing their structured school environments, but were not sure what to expect when they returned to in-person education. Younger children, who can have difficulty verbalizing their fears, showed anxiety through sleeping disorders and behavior challenges. Middle schoolers and teenagers lost their social outlets: schools, after school activities and clubs, sports teams, etc. They questioned how they would fit into their social circles again.

While children can be resilient and adaptable, Dr. Davis was committed to finding ways for adolescents to live full lives of interaction that could also decrease depression and anxiety. He looked to his own family for inspiration and to his medical studies for validation.

Dr. Davis’ wife works as a veterinary technician, so the family has a love for animals. In addition to three school-age kids, Dr. Davis and his wife have two dogs, three cats, and chickens; and they also foster kittens for Fayette Regional Humane Society, when they are able. This large family unit keeps them busy, but also impacts their family in unexpected ways.

“I have seen how taking care of pets has changed my children’s views on the world. On their own, they have donated food and pet litter to the shelter, as well as asked for donations (in lieu of gifts) for their birthdays.”

Dr. Davis recalls how the family fostered a pregnant cat in 2020, when many humane society surgical centers were temporarily closed, due to the pandemic. The cat had kittens in the basement of their home, but the experience was anything but ordinary. “My children went from the pure excitement of expecting the kittens to arrive to watching most of them be adopted by other families; but they also experienced the heartbreak of losing some kittens shortly after birth, due to unexpected complications. It was a real learning journey for them.”

One area that medicine is exploring in more detail is how the relationship between pets and owners can help reduce stress and anxiety, particularly in kids. “More medical literature and studies are being done on the human-animal bond,” said Dr. Davis.

According to an article in Pediatric Nursing,a variety of goals may be incorporated into animal assisted therapy (AAT), focusing on physical, mental, educational, or motivational objectives. “Mental health goals may range from increasing verbal interactions among group members, increasing attention skills, developing recreation skills, and increasing self-esteem to reducing anxiety and loneliness in a child” (“The Role and Impact of Animals with Pediatric Patients.” Pediatric Nursing March-April 2015, English ed.: 67. Print).

“Concierge medicine affords me the opportunity to deepen relationships with families, to better help recognize and provide individualized treatment plans,” said Dr. Davis. “If there is a sense that a child is struggling with anxiety or depression, I can meet with the family and formulate a game plan that may include medicines, routines, and other ways that the child can feel a sense of accomplishment and ownership.”

He will often ask the family if they have considered the possibility of pet ownership. “Pets offer companionship and a safe space,” explained Dr. Davis. “This unconditional love and acceptance help reduce anxiety and depression in children; but pets also give kids the opportunity to feel a sense of duty and responsibility.”

If you are considering AAT for your family, it is best to consult with a doctor, to ensure that you are managing all aspects of anxiety, depression, and treatments. For more information, contact Nick Davis, MD, and Associates at (937) 530-3622.

PULL QUOTE:

“Pets offer companionship and a safe space. This unconditional love and acceptance help reduce anxiety and depression in children.”

SIDEBAR:

It is important to note that if you are thinking of making plans to include a pet as part of your family, it is a family commitment. Animals have feelings and emotions that need nurtured and supported. Pets require routine and emergency medical care, so consider financial requirements to keep a pet healthy. A safe home environment that includes fencing and adequate space should be evaluated for the type of pet that would serve your family best. Also, do not forget to think about working conditions and how the pet fits into your working schedule, now and in the future. As Dr. Davis advises, “the whole family must be brought into this decision to adopt a pet.”

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