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Pets have powerful impact on kids

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What child can resist a cute and cuddly furry friend? Whether it's your own pet, a neighbor's pet or a therapy dog, kids respond well to animals. Dr. Kristen Eastman,  a child psychologist at Cleveland Clinic Children's, says interacting with a friendly animal can be pretty powerful.

"Animals in general seem to lower the stress response for kids and adults alike. We know it lowers the heart rate, it lowers blood pressure, it seems to promote relaxation in many people," explained Eastman.

For kids who may be shy, the non-threatening nature of a small animal encourages socialization - a child may be intimidated to talk to a person, but find it easier to hone social skills by talking to a puppy or kitten.

"It gives them the opportunity to have that cause and effect in their social behavior and see the impact of what they do and how it elicits a response in the animal," Eastman said.

Resent research shows animals may act as social buffers and ease anxiety for kids with autism. Another study finds children with psychiatric conditions are more social in therapy sessions when a dog is present.  

Eastman has also seen kids with speech and language difficulties, intense fears and aggressive behavior benefit from animal interaction. She often incorporates pictures of animals or real animals into her sessions to help teach empathy and build trust. She says even teaching a dog a trick can help instill confidence in a child.

"To give them that chance to see that I can do this and it elicits a positive response from somebody so maybe I can do more, and more, and more and we keep building goals from there," said Eastman.

While there are many benefits to interacting with animals, Eastman finds that an animal that a child is already comfortable with works best. She adds, if you're thinking about getting a furry companion, it's important to make sure your child is at a comfortable age where they can take on the responsibility.