By Dr. Becker
Many pet owners view their pet as part of the family, but for children the family pet may be akin to having another sibling — and in some ways even better. The study involved 77 12-year-olds, who revealed they had less conflicts and greater relationship satisfaction with their pets than with their siblings.1
"Even though pets may not fully understand or respond verbally, the level of disclosure to pets was no less than to siblings," study author William T. Cassels, department of psychiatry at the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom, said in a press release.
"The fact that pets cannot understand or talk back may even be a benefit as it means they are completely non-judgmental.”2
Children Reveal Close Relationship With Pets
The study used the Network of Relationships Inventory (NRI), a measure of human relationship quality, adapted for pets to measure the relationships between children and their pets.
Relationship satisfaction was greatest among children and dogs, compared to other types of pets, which may be in part because they closely follow people’s subtle communicative cues.
Also, girls reported a stronger bond with pets than boys did. “Results showed that girls reported more disclosure, companionship and conflict with their pet than did boys,” the researchers wrote,3 which suggests they may have been interacting with their pets “in more nuanced ways.”4
Overall, however, the study shows that pets play an integral role in children’s lives, perhaps helping to shape their development and enhance their social and psychological well-being.
Past research has even found that children may rank pets higher than humans when it comes to providing them a sense of comfort and self-esteem and acting as confidants.5
Pets Help Reduce Childhood Stress and Anxiety
Children with a pet dog are less likely to suffer from anxiety than children without, likely for multiple reasons. Researchers explained in the journal Preventing Chronic Disease:6
“A pet dog can stimulate conversation, an ice-breaking effect that can alleviate social anxiety via a social catalyst effect. Companionship with a pet can alleviate separation anxiety and strengthen attachment.
Social interaction of humans and dogs may also lead to increased oxytocin levels in both the human and the dog. Interacting with a friendly dog also reduces cortisol levels most likely through oxytocin release, which attenuates physiologic responses to stress.”
Indeed, other research has shown that pets are associated with reduced high blood pressure7 in children, as well as better coping strategies among children of deployed U.S. military personnel.8
Caring for a pet may also encourage self-regulatory behavior in children, which may be particularly beneficial for kids learning to live with chronic diseases like type 1 diabetes.9
Are There Physical Benefits of Pet Ownership for Kids?
With rising rates of overweight and obesity (in both people and their pets), the fact that dog ownership has been associated with increased physical activity is a benefit worth nothing. Among children, a higher level of attachment to a pet dog is linked with increased physical activity.10
Other research has shown that more than half of 10- to 12-year-olds with a family dog walk their dog, and those who did were also more likely to walk in the neighborhood and play in their yard, leading researchers to suggest, “Dog-facilitated play and physical activity can be an effective strategy for increasing children's physical activity.”11
Beyond physical activity, numerous studies suggest that exposure to pets in infancy may reduce the risk for allergies to pet hair and dander as well as to certain other environmental allergens as well.
Research also shows that children from dog-owning homes have fewer ear infections and respiratory tract infections, and require fewer antibiotics, during their first year of life, perhaps because the exposure stimulates the immune system.12
Pet Ownership Offers Valuable Life Lessons
Children with pets also receive valuable life lessons, from the responsibility it takes to feed and groom a pet to the empathy required to tend to their emotional needs. Pet ownership teaches respect for animals, patience and compassion, along with trust and feelings of loyalty.
Whether or not your child’s bond with a pet will surpass those made with his or her siblings, your child will likely come to view your pet as a member of the family, just like you do — and a cherished one at that.