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Study: Pets Help Kids with Deployed Parents Cope with Stress

Volunteer dog, Bonnie, listens attentively as 6-year-old Sarah Francis reads aloud at Schofield Barracks in Hawaii. (DoD photo)

A newly published study finds that military children with a deployed parent who have a close relationship with a pet cope better with stress than those who do not. 

The study, released by Tufts University Oct. 29, examined through an online survey of 300 middle and high school students from military families who were involved in programs with the Military Child Education Coalition. Those with a currently deployed parent who had a strong bond with a pet, regardless of type, showed a greater ability to deal with stress than those without one.

But just having a pet in the house is not enough to help with military child stress, researchers found. The relationship needs to be close for it to have an impact, the study found. 

"What we were interested in is the quality of the relationship," said Megan Mueller, a doctor of developmental psychology and research assistant professor at Tufts. "What we're finding is it's not just the presence of the animal, but really the type of relationship they have with the animal. For kids that have a currently deployed parent, attachment to an animal was predictive of higher coping mechanisms."

The study confirms what Mueller and others already suspected.

"As the daughter of a veterinarian this validated conventional wisdom to me," said Stacey Smith, the director of research and evaluation for the Military Child Education Coalition, which helped recruit children for the study.

"I would definitely say it provides initial evidence of really the power of the human-animal relationship in military families," Mueller said. 

Mueller and Smith said they aim to use this study as a launching point for more research into how pets impact the emotional health of military families. They said they hope military leaders use the current findings to justify dedicating more resources to helping military families keep and move with their animals. 

Many military installations have subsidized horse stables, dog and cat kennels and veterinary clinics, and military housing generally allows pets without charging extra fees. But the military does not pay for families to ship their pets overseas, which can cost thousands of dollars. And rather than foot the bill for pricey flights or paying off-base housing pets fees, many military families choose to leave their pets behind.

"I think one of the practical implications of this type of study is that we can really demonstrate that there's a positive benefit to having a pet," Mueller said. "Hopefully we can garner some resources."

--Amy Bushatz can be reached at Amy.Bushatz@military.com

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