The impact of pet ownership in childhood development


Getting a family pet is an exciting time – unsurprisingly we often focus on how much joy and entertainment a new furry family member can bring. But there are also a number of ways pet ownership can impact childhood development, including social, emotional and educational benefits. In this guide, we explore all of these in more detail and look at how parents can safely introduce a family pet, encourage responsible pet ownership and embrace the role animals play in childhood development

 

Chapter 1

An introduction to pet ownership

For many kids, growing up with pets plays a major role in their childhood. Whether that’s a guinea pig or dog, the first family pet is a memorable experience for children. Finding out what to feed a rabbit or teaching the dog a new trick – it’s all a useful learning curve for kids. Not only does it give children regular encounters with animals, it’s a chance to experience the bond of pet ownership. Families are responsible for feeding, exercising and looking after the health and wellbeing of their pets.

According to the 2021-2022 National Pet Owners Survey by the American Pet Products Association (APPA), 70% of US households own a pet. That’s about 90.5 million families who have welcomed a furry family member into their homes, and an all-time high since their records began. In 1988, the first year the survey was conducted, 56% of US households had pets.

Why do we keep pets?

Everyone's reasons for getting a pet may vary – for example, people who get a horse are likely to be willing to have additional time commitments than the average fish owner. That said, there are some common themes. APPA’s National Pet Owners Survey found that pet ownership grew from 67% to 70% between 2019 and 2020. Steve King, president and CEO of APPA, believes coronavirus may have had an impact.

Without a doubt, pets have long been a great source of comfort and companionship for us, so it’s not surprising that COVID-19 may have encouraged more people to get pets.

When we look at the history of pet ownership, modern pet keeping as we know it only became widely accepted at the end of the 17th century. It was only common across the whole population a century later. Before that, there are odd incidences that show the bond between human and animal. For example, dogs and cats were buried with humans some 12,000 years ago, says Greger Larson , director of the University of Oxford’s palaeogenomics and bio-archaeology research network.

There’s evidence that dogs got special burials (sometimes alongside high-value items) at least 8,000 years ago and the Romans kept small toy dogs around 2,000 years ago. There’s murals from ancient Egyptian times depicting pharaohs keeping companion animals and many generations of Chinese emperors kept dogs but, in general, not too much is known about exactly when we started keeping pets. Whenever it was, it’s clear to see that our long attachment to these animals is still going strong.

Nowadays pets are well and truly much-loved additions.

66% allowed their pet to sleep in bed with them

54% buy gifts for their furry (or feathered) friends during the holiday season

In terms of why these generous pet owners got their pets in the first place, many actually did so (36%) because their partner or other family members wanted one. Parents of children under 18 are even more likely (47%) to say this is why they got a pet. The benefits a pet can bring a family is a strong driving force. Reasons included:

36% because their partner or other family members wanted one

52% of pet owners say they got a pet to keep them company

49% decided to get a pet because they thought they could provide a nice home

40% got a pet in the hope of improving their own mental health

We’ll touch on some of these reasons later, as there is of course overlap with why pets can be important in childhood development.

Common family pets

If you’ve got a cat curled up on your lap or a dog warming your feet, you might have glanced over why we keep pets – you already know what a fantastic addition a pet is to your family. But what pets are popular in the US?

Unsurprisingly dogs and cats are – by far – the most popular pets to have. Although we only have slightly older figures , we know pets are part of the family in the majority of households worldwide, but there are some interesting differences between countries. While, on average, one third (33%) of households globally have a dog, two in three (66%) people in Argentina own a dog, the country with the highest incidence of pet ownership. In Asia, people are least likely to own a pet – in Hong Kong, for example, just 14% own a dog.

information iconKidadl Advisory

All pets should only be bought from a reputable source. It is recommended that as a potential pet owner you carry out your own research prior to deciding on your pet of choice. Being a pet owner is very rewarding but it also involves commitment, time and money. Ensure that your pet choice complies with the legislation in your state and/or country. You must never take animals from the wild or disturb their habitat. Please check that the pet you are considering buying is not an endangered species, or listed on the CITES list, and has not been taken from the wild for the pet trade.

 

Chapter 2

The role of pets in childhood development

When you get a family pet as a child, you’re mainly just excited. It’s a fun new friend to play with. But as many parents learn, pets can play a huge role in positive childhood development. There’s so much more to pet ownership than just welcoming a furry friend into your home.

Social, emotional and educational benefits of pets

The changes that happen within childhood (especially the first few years of life) are truly remarkable. The experiences children have growing up shape them and the adults they will become.

These early years are so influential in the emotional, social and physical development of young children, including developing self-regulation skills – their ability to regulate emotion, behavior and attention according to the situation they’re in. It’s the foundation of many skills needed to interpret behavior, manage social interactions, and determine their learning disposition and habits. It all influences how they’ll get along with others and respond to daily stresses and challenges.

Human development is complex but the ability to self-regulate is a hugely important foundation established early in life – and it’s an area where interaction with pets can play a crucial role.

Provide comfort and reassurance

Animals are a great source of comfort and emotional support. When children are asked who they would go to with a problem, surveys show that kids regularly mention pets, according to researchers Nienke Endenburg and Ben Baarda who did an overview of the scientific literature in The Waltham Book of Human-Animal Interaction.

Kids often see their pets as friends, confiding in them and relying on them for comfort. Dogs are particularly good at this, says Dr. Ann Berger , a physician and researcher at the NIH Clinical Center in Bethesda, Maryland. “The foundations of mindfulness include attention, intention, compassion, and awareness,” Berger says. “All of those things are things that animals bring to the table. People kind of have to learn it. Animals do this innately.” Their attention is focused on who they’re with most of the time.

Their unconditional love can do more than keep a child company – interacting with animals has been shown to decrease levels of cortisol (a stress-related hormone), increase the release of dopamine and oxytocin, which are anti-stress or feel-good hormones, and lower blood pressure.

Help with or aid learning and improve confidence

We know pets are non-judgemental. Parents with pets will attest to the fact you’ll often see kids chatting away to their furry friends, reading them stories or even asking them questions. Animals enjoy the company – they don’t have the expectations or assumptions that humans do. For children, this means they may talk to, or confide in, an animal in ways they would not with people especially if they’re not confident. They’re not afraid of looking silly or making a mistake in front of the animal, so they’ll try and grow in confidence. This boosted self-esteem can really help with learning over time, as well as simply feeling more comfortable with new challenges.

This can be beneficial while learning too. Mary Renck Jalongo, PhD, education professor at Indiana University of Pennsylvania and author of The World of Children and Their Companion Animal spoke about a study during which children were asked to read in front of a peer, an adult, and a dog while researchers monitored their stress levels. The audience they were most relaxed around was the dogs.

Encourage nurturing behavior

You’ll often hear about how having a pet helps children learn the importance of responsibilities – it’s something we’ll touch on later, how you can get your child involved in taking care of an animal. But what’s so beneficial about this is how much it encourages caring traits at a young age.

Gail F. Melson, PhD, professor emeritus of developmental studies at Purdue University, in Indiana, and the author of Why the Wild Things Are: Animals in the Lives of Children said: “nurturing isn't a quality that suddenly appears in adulthood when we need it… People need a way to practice being caregivers when they're young." And pets offer just that opportunity. She researched how much time kids over three spent actively caring for their pets versus caring for or even playing with younger siblings. She found that within a 24-hour period:

  • Kids with pets spent 10.3 minutes in caregiving
  • Kids with only younger siblings spent only 2.4 minutes

Improve health and encourage a healthy lifestyle

There are obvious benefits to having certain pets who require exercise – notably dogs, who will encourage you to exercise more and lead an active lifestyle. But there are benefits beyond that for all types of pets. According to a study by Dennis Ownby , M.D., a pediatrician and head of the allergy and immunology department of the Medical College of Georgia, having multiple pets decreases a child's risk of developing certain allergies.

He tracked 474 babies from birth to about age 7, discovering that children who were exposed to two or more dogs or cats as babies were less than half as likely to develop common allergies as kids who had no pets in the home. Kids with pets had fewer positive skin tests to both:

  • Indoor allergens, such as pet and dust-mite allergens
  • Outdoor allergens, such as ragweed and grass

Build deeper family bonds

This is a potentially unexpected benefit, but pets can, in fact, help families grow closer. This is great for all of the family, not just for the children. It’s quite straightforward when you think about it; a pet is often the focus of family activities. You’ll go on a walk together, take turns grooming or feeding the pet, or simply all play together. Not only that but you’ll talk about the pet too – how funny it was when the dog chased his tail, or how happy you were when the hamster used her wheel for the first time and so on.

These experiences encourage families to slow down and think about what you’re doing or have done. In the fast-paced lives we tend to live, pets allow us to spend more time together in the present moment – not looking at our phones or having our attention diverted by other distractions.

Pet bonding activities and responsible play

To encourage the role that pets can play in childhood development, parents will want to know what activities they can use to help their children bond with pets. That’s where the idea of responsible play comes in. Animals are great fun to be around, but we have to teach children (and pets) boundaries to ensure both feel safe and comfortable while bonding.

After all, pets can get stressed, tired or anxious, too. That’s why it’s important for parents (and kids) to learn how to recognize signs of stress in their pet and know when not to approach. These could include:

Signs of stress in a pet

 
portrait of a dog

Dog

  • A tail tucked under may mean a dog is anxious
  • If a dog is panting (without exercise), they may be experiencing stress
  • Showing teeth or growling is a warning sign that a dog needs space
  • Yawning, drooling, and licking can mean a dog is nervous
  • Dogs may pace or find it hard to settle if they are agitated
  • A dog may cower or shrink if it feels threatened
 
portrait of a cat

Cat

  • Hiding or escape behaviour
  • Crouching and looking tense, especially close to the ground, may mean the cat is frightened
  • Hissing or growling is a warning sign that a cat needs space
  • Cats may demonstrate exaggerated swallowing or licking their nose if scared
  • Repeated pacing when in the home, often accompanied by loud meowing, is likely a sign of stress
  • Scratching excessively on the furniture
 
portrait of a hamster

Small animal

  • Running away or trying to get away
  • Small animals with dilated pupils, blinking rapidly and generally having a startled appearance are scared
  • Scared small animals may also jump at every sudden sound or movement and always be on high alert
  • Rabbits may hold their ears back tight against their head or thump the ground if they’re stressed
  • Repetitive behaviors, such as circling or biting the bars of their cage, could mean an animal is stressed

Pets can be sensitive. They can easily become anxious or frustrated by things going on around them, or by the way people interact with them, especially if it’s a new or unknown experience. As a pet owner, you’re responsible for creating safe, comfortable environments for them.

Animals can actually be very good at hiding signs that they are stressed or in pain, so keep an eye on any noticeable change in your pet’s usual patterns of behavior and routines. For example, if they’re increased needy or dependent on your or your family – or the opposite, if they’ve become withdrawn and don’t want to interact with you.

Throughout this guide, we have mainly focused on adding a pet into a home with children. But it often happens the other way around – a new baby arrives after a pet. From your pet’s perspective, this will be a huge change and potential disruption. It’s one of the biggest changes that could happen to them – think about the new sounds and smells, arrival of new furniture and objects, the changes to your routine and so on. It can cause stress, but once again understanding your pet and knowing what’s normal or isn’t, as well as being able to spot the signs of stress, will help ease any transition – whether it’s during playtime or another family event.

Other tips for parents wanting to encourage responsible play are:

  • Model the right behavior yourself. You can set the right example yourself by interacting with your pets in a responsible, safe way.
  • Getting kids involved in training. Training your pet doesn’t have to be boring. You can get children involved and show them what to do to teach your pet a new trick.
  • Reinforce positive behaviors from both pet and child. Always remember to encourage the right behaviors with praise.
  • Model the right behavior yourself. You can set the right example yourself by interacting with your pets in a responsible, safe way.
  • Getting kids involved in training. Training your pet doesn’t have to be boring. You can get children involved and show them what to do to teach your pet a new trick.
  • Reinforce positive behaviors from both pet and child. Always remember to encourage the right behaviors with praise.

 

Chapter 3

Pets and neurodiverse children

The presence of a nonjudgmental pal with paws in the family home can help all kids, but it can be especially valuable to neurodiverse children. Beyond the benefits we’ve outlined above, there have been additional studies into how different pets can support autistic children and children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) to be the best versions of themselves.

What does science say?

The National Institutes of Health, part of the U.S. The Department of Health and Human Services, has partnered with the Mars Corporation’s WALTHAM Center for Pet Nutrition for some years now. They fund research studies and large-scale surveys to answer questions such as, who benefits from an animal? And which type of pet brings health benefits?

As part of this, they have been studying animal interactions with autistic kids and kids who have ADHD and other conditions. The findings, reported in the research article The Power of Pets and discussed below, are interesting.

“We’re trying to tap into the subjective quality of the relationship with the animal—that part of the bond that people feel with animals—and how that translates into some of the health benefits,” explains Dr. James Griffin, a child development expert at NIH.

Autistic children

One study found that autistic children were calmer while playing with guinea pigs in the classroom, compared to playing with a toy. After spending 10 minutes in a supervised group play session, the anxiety levels of the autistic children dropped. The research also revealed the children had better social interactions and were more engaged with their peers. They were more likely to engage in behaviors such as introducing themselves, asking for information or responding to questions.

Animals offer unconditional acceptance, without judgment, so can help to reassure and improve confidence levels. Even after as short a time as 10 minutes, it’s impressive to see social skills can temporarily improve. Having a family pet from a young age is more likely to have a greater impact on social skills. 

But which pets? Well, a study, published in the Journal of Pediatric Nursing, surveyed parents of autistic children about the children’s interactions with dogs. They found:

94% of families that owned a dog said their child bonded strongly with the pet

7 in 10 parents (in families without dogs) said their child enjoyed interacting with dogs

There are organizations that train dogs specifically to be pets or assistance animals for autistic people, such as Dogs for Autism, Autism Dogs and Support Dogs . These dogs offer benefits beyond the typical facets of pet ownership, helping autistic people access locations which may be challenging locations, such as airports and shops. They can also be trained to use a range of techniques to help calm a child, such as:

  • Licking the child to comfort them
  • Apply weighted pressure by leaning on the child – this can be used as a calming and grounding technique
  • Using their paws and body to block the child from injuring themselves

However, the author of the study emphasized the need to consider each child’s sensitivities and the family dynamics when thinking about pet ownership. According to other reports, cats are also a good choice. Unlike dogs, they tend to look away after short stints of eye contact, which can be more comfortable for autistic children. There are benefits to all kinds of pets – even watching fish in a tank can be therapeutic and promote a sense of calm.

Children with ADHD

NIH has also reported on studies about how animals may help children with ADHD – in particular, how dogs can help them focus their attention. When researchers enrolled two groups of children diagnosed with ADHD into 12-week group therapy sessions, the first group read to a therapy dog once a week for 30 minutes. The second group read to puppets that looked like dogs.

Children who spent time reading to the real dogs had fewer behavioral problems during therapy, and they demonstrated better social skills – such as sharing more, cooperating and volunteering.

A pet can also create structure and encourage regular habits, something which symptoms of ADHD may make tricky. Animals need to have some consistency in terms of when they are fed, when they are exercised, when they go to bed and so on. Getting kids involved in this routine can help them thrive.

Depending on their age, you can teach them to stick to the pet’s schedule and gain valuable skills like keeping track of time and managing responsibilities. These can transfer over to everyday life and non-pet related activities, but also make the child feel proud of their involvement in taking care of their pet.

This ripple effect is something we see cropping up in all the benefits of pet ownership. One benefit spreads over into other parts of the lives of pet owners. Even with these daily responsibilities, which may not be the most exciting aspect of owning a pet, you’re encouraged to focus on the present moment – something which we know has a calming effect.

Neurodiversity and pet companionship

Neurodiverse children may feel isolated, especially if they find socializing difficult. A pet can truly make a difference. Interactions with others are important for our health and a pet can act as a bit of an icebreaker. Dr. Layla Esposito, who oversees NIH’s Human-Animal Interaction Research Program explains “there’s not one answer about how a pet can help somebody with a specific condition.” It depends on what you (and your family) are looking to gain from having a pet, as well as what type of home you can offer an animal.

Chapter 4

Advice on getting a family pet

While there are so many benefits to getting a family pet, having an animal companion comes with a lot of responsibility. All pets require a lot of time and money from the family they join. Most owners will tell you how much their beloved pets are worth it, but it’s not a decision you should take lightly. By doing your research into what pet may be the right fit for your family, you’ll be more likely to welcome an animal that’s going to bring you and your children joy.

Choosing the right pet for your family

Different animals have varying needs, some of which we’ve covered below:

The needs of different popular pets

 
picture of a dog

Dogs

  • Daily food
  • Daily exercise and mental stimulation
  • Enough space and ideally a garden
  • Regular grooming
  • Vaccinations and vet check-ups
 
picture of a cat

Cats

  • Daily food
  • Daily mental stimulation
  • Regular grooming
  • Litter trays, scratching posts and toys
  • Vaccinations and vet check-ups
 
picture of a fish

Fish

  • A tank large enough for all fish
  • Regular cleaning
  • Daily food
 
picture of a bunny

Small animals (rabbits, guinea pigs, hamsters)

  • A suitable spacious cage
  • Regular cleaning
  • Daily food
  • Regular grooming
  • Generally they thrive in the company of another small animal
  • Vaccinations and vet check-ups

Questions to ask yourself

It’s likely you’ll have a favorite in mind, but you have to think about whether you’re the right owner for that animal. Can you meet its needs and offer it the right type of home and lifestyle? When thinking about getting a pet, start by asking yourself:

Do you have the time?

Families are often busy, so think about how a pet would fit into your lifestyle – including whether you’d want to take the pet out and about with you where possible or if you’d be planning to leave them at home. Dogs can be left at home for small periods of time but often enjoy a lot of attention, whereas a rabbit would be happy in the company of another of its kind.

You also have to think about the initial time investment in terms of familiarizing them with their new surroundings and any training you’ll need to do. One of the biggest challenges pet owners talk about is the need to train pets or deal with any behavioral issues, identified by 45% of pet owners according to YouGov.

Do you have the budget?

Pets aren’t cheap. You’ll have to pay for food, bedding, toys, grooming and vet bills. You may want to get pet insurance to cover emergencies and accidents and you can certainly consider all of the necessary pet supplies in your usual family budget, but the amount they can cost is something you need to keep in mind. Take the average annual expenses for dogs and cats, for example, seen in the table on the right.

Do you have the space?

You might be surprised about how much stuff an animal needs. With children, it’s likely you’ll already have quite a lot of toys and other extras. It’s important to think about how different pets would fit in. Do you have room for a fish tank the size you’d need? Do you have an area where a cat can retreat to as their own? A lot of animals need their own space to hide in – while it doesn’t have to be huge, it’s something to consider. What’s more, you may need to be careful with where the pets who roam have access to or put in the time to train them. For example, some pet owners may choose to give their dog free reign downstairs, but not let them upstairs.

Even once you’ve narrowed down an animal, there are different breeds to consider. Not every animal will behave the same or have similar needs. Take The American Kennel Club’s 2021 most popular dog breeds.

Poodles are likely to need far more grooming than some of the others, and while a Dachshund might take up less space in your home, you shouldn’t assume it needs less exercise simply because it’s smaller. You need to do your research into the breeds to decide what will fit into your family lifestyle best.

Equally, if you decide a pet isn’t right for your family at the moment, that’s fine. Your family can still benefit from spending time with animals. Consider the following:

  • Spending time with pets your family and friends own
  • Going to responsible animal parks, petting zoos or similar
  • Spend time outside in nature observing wild animals from a distance

Encouraging responsible pet ownership

One of the benefits of pet ownership for childhood development is the chance it gives children to take on new responsibilities. While it’s important for kids to have fun and bond with their pets, they should also know and be involved in taking care of them. The best way to do that is by getting them involved in the daily tasks you’re responsible for.

Depending on their age, things you could teach your kids to do include:

 
portrait of a mouse

Feed

Most animals are fed daily. How much do you feed them? What do you feed them and why? These are all things you can explain to your child and start allowing them to take over. You can emphasize the importance of routine for animals and encourage them to be responsible for keeping to a healthy schedule for your pet.

 
cat at a salon

Grooming

Some animals will need grooming regularly. Not only does it keep their coats in good condition, grooming is also a chance to give your pets a bit of a once-over health check. Look for any changes in the condition of their coat and run your hand over their bodies. Explain to your children that you’re simply looking for any changes – for example, a lack of shine in the coat, a lump under the skin or any scratches. It introduces the idea of looking after their health regularly without it being a worrying moment.

 
portrait of a puppy

Exercise

Dogs in particular do need daily exercise. Not only is a walk a good chance for a dog to run around, sniff new smells and interact with other dogs, it’s good exercise for their owners. It’s something all the family can easily get involved in – and

 

If pets don’t need exercise, it’s likely they’ll still require some need of mental stimulation or attention. A cat, for example, probably won’t go on a walk but you can make a conscious effort to engage with it daily – introducing new toys or a different game.

As a parent you can decide when and how to get your children involved in the care of the family pets. It’s just important to encourage the behavior of responsible pet owners. As a child matures, they can take on more of the daily jobs, boosting their sense of independence and responsibility. After all, all of these activities lead back to the important role pet ownership plays in childhood development – animals large and small can teach, delight and offer support while kids grow up.

 

Chapter 5

Useful links

Thanks to Ava Lewis and Kidadl for sharing this article and for their kind permission to use it.

https://kidadl.com/facts/animals/pets-and-childhood-development-guide

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