A recent study by scientists in Liverpool has suggested that there are positive emotional, cognitive and educational impacts on children and adolescents when they own a pet. Although studies have traditionally focused on children’s relationships with each other, the researchers noted that 68% of U.S. households and 46% of UK households include at least one pet and that pets are more likely to be in a household with children than any other type of household. Pet ownership has the potential to positively influence child and adolescent development, but it has not been studied to the same extent as human relationships. The study was published in the International Journal of Pet Nutrition as an open access study.
The researchers carried out an in-depth review and quality evaluation of studies which examined the influence that pets could have over the emotional, behavioural, cognitive, educational and social development of children and adolescents. They acknowledged that pet ownership could also carry risks such as the possibility being bitten, catching disease or suffering from allergies or asthma but the studies they used noted more positive than negative effects from pet ownership.
In searching for studies that matched their criteria, the scientists discovered a lack of quality studies. They found only 22 that they could use that fitted their own study. Many of the studies were small and used a range of methodological approaches which made them difficult to compare. Not all of the studies had accounted for confounding factors which made drawing definite conclusions difficult. Some studies focused on a narrow age range such as 3-6 years, while others ranged from 0-18 years or just adolescents (13-18 years).
Nineteen of the studies examined the outcomes of children’s emotional health. They identified a wide range of emotional health benefits. Two studies looked at the reduction of anxiety which was associated with owning a dog. Some potential benefits to owning a pet dog in terms of reducing child anxiety was identified, but some studies suggested that general anxiety was not reduced. More research is needed to enhance these findings. There were not many studies looking at children and depression in relation to owning a pet. The researchers found only a few pieces of research and suggested that these findings should be treated with caution. There could be an indirect effect of pet ownership on depression, especially if it were mediated by loneliness, social isolation or self-esteem. They also suggested that the protective effects of pets could be different according to the age of the child and the relationship with the animal.
Nine studies looked at the link between self-esteem and pet ownership. One study involving war-traumatised Croatian children found that there seemed to be no effect by owning a pet. Other studies suggested that there may be a relationship between self-esteem and the level of attachment to a pet. In children aged 8-12, a study reported that positive changes in confidence level seemed to be associated with a high level of attachment to a pet dog. The studies would seem to indicate that pets were most likely to have a positive effect on self-esteem during pre-adolescence and adolescence. The studies suggested that cats and dogs were better at providing psychological support and could receive higher rankings than some human relationships for helping children feel better about themselves.
The impact of owning a pet on loneliness has mostly been studied in adolescents and older young people. Loneliness could be an indicator of possible anxiety, low self-esteem and depression. The impact on younger children has not been studied. When examining behavioural outcomes, researchers found that although children improved their behaviour when they got a new pet, this did not continue and so did not change their behaviour permanently. Some studies have suggested that owning a pet can make homeless youths more responsible and that children can be more self-reliant when they own a pet. Three studies investigating cognitive development suggested that adolescents with strong attachment to their pets had higher levels of validated social-cognitive development scores, however there was no comparison to non-pet owners. Some studies found higher scores of self-reliance and independent decision making, as reported by parents, when comparing pet owning to non-pet owning children.
Educational outcomes have been studied in younger children who have demonstrated better knowledge of animal anatomy and biology than those who did not own a pet. Pets could also encourage children in their development of emotions and empathy. There is no research on educational outcomes and later adolescent children.
It has been concluded that children gain social developmental benefits from owning a pet including positive attitudes towards animals, social competence and empathy. However this study also emphasised that there is a real need for large-scale studies into the subject in order to draw definite conclusions.
Purewal, R., et al., Companion Animals and Child/Adolescent Development: a Systematic Review of the Evidence, International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, Feb 2017, 14(3)