Kids who have a dog to cuddle up with at night, talk to, and play with by day are less likely to suffer from anxiety, a new study suggests.
Researchers from Bassett Medical Center in Cooperstown, New York, asked parents of children between the ages of four and 10 who came in for well-child visits to answer a questionnaire on an iPad before the checkup. It asked about nutrition and injury prevention, among other health-related topics, and also about pets in the home.
The researchers formed two study groups based on the answers, one with children who had a pet dog at home and the other with kids who did not have pups.
"We studied children with dogs because that was the most common pet and allowed us to collect a large sample of children," said study author Dr. Anne Gadomski, a research scientist and attending pediatrician at Bassett Healthcare Network.
The study included 370 kids with dogs and 273 kids who didn't have one. Among the 58 percent of children with a dog, 12 percent tested positive on a screening test for anxiety, compared with 21 percent of children who did not have a pet dog.
"What we actually found was children from homes with pet dogs had lower anxiety scores than children in homes with no pet dog," Gadomski told CBS News.
She noted that the study is one of associations and more research is needed to look at cause and effect.
Anxiety disorders affect one in eight children, according the National Institute of Mental Health. Research shows that when it goes untreated, kids with anxiety are at a higher risk for poor school performance, they're more likely to miss out on key social experiences, and at an increased risk for substance abuse. Anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the U.S., affecting 40 million adults 18 and older -- 18 percent of the population.
"Childhood anxiety is a huge mental health problem in the U.S. and anything we can do to mitigate anxiety or prevent its development would have a huge impact on the mental health system in the United States," Gadomski said.
The idea for the research came about in part by Gadomski's observations as a practicing pediatrician for the past three decades. "I've always been impressed with how a baby's first words are often a pet's name," she said. "Or when a pet dies, we see there's this incredible attachment there with children."
Gadomski, who is a dog owner herself, said she is interested in looking at pets and childhood mental health from a preventive health angle.
"I see a lot of kids in practice who have anxiety disorders and my heart goes out to them and their families and I'd do anything to try to nip that in the bud," she said.
Some anxiety is normal in childhood, including being afraid of the dark, monsters, thunder and lightning, or bugs and spiders, for example, said Dr. Adiaha Spinks-Franklin, a developmental-behavioral pediatrician with Texas Children's Hospital.
"Young children between the ages of three and seven, that is the most common age to have childhood fears. It goes with magical thinking at that age. They don't know the difference between fantasy and reality, especially at night. Those are normal fears and don't really interfere with the functioning of a child," Spinks-Franklin said.
More serious anxiety issues, anxiety disorders, interfere with the day-to-day functioning of a child, she said. A youngster may have separation anxiety and have trouble getting up out of bed in the morning and difficulty leaving parents, for example.
"Generalized anxiety disorder interferes with sleep and learning. A worried brain can't learn," Spinks-Franklin explained.
She said some parents are reluctant to get a pet because of the amount of responsibility it involves, but there are perks.
"I have patients who don't want to sleep alone, who want to sleep with a parent. But then they get a dog and the dog sleeps with them and that alleviates their anxiety," Spinks-Franklin told CBS News.
She said for children with social anxiety, a pet really can be a "best friend."
"Cats or a rabbit or a gerbil. Kids have told me they absolutely talk with their pets when something's bothering them. The pet won't judge them and loves them unconditionally," she said.
Spinks-Franklin added, "They have a living being that reciprocates their love and who they can trust no matter what. I think that there are more benefits to having a pet than there are to not having a pet."
If a parent has a concern about an allergy, talk with a pediatrician about the best kinds of pets to buy or adopt, Spinks-Franklin advised.