The first step in selecting a pet is figuring out how they will fit into your home. Kelly Oakes investigates the effects of animals in families and how they significantly affect kids’ growth.

You’re more likely to find an animal protagonist in a book from a young child’s shelf than a human one. Children seem to be enthralled with animals in general, from enormous humpback whales to extremely hungry caterpillars. However, while picture book characters are frequently very different from real people, many of us who own pets give kids a more realistic look at the animal kingdom in addition to a meaningful relationship that has a huge impact on them in other ways.

Parents who have a better understanding of that relationship may be better able to select the ideal pet for their child as well as gain a deeper understanding of the components of a genuinely successful bond.

Pets are cherished family members who support people through many phases of life for a large number of people. They can be playmates for young children, strengthen bonds between couples, and support parents when their kids go out on their own.

According to a US study, 63% of homes with a baby under a year old had a pet, and an Australian study discovered that pet ownership increases by 10% as kids enter school.

Taking care of an animal can, in the instinctive opinion of many parents, teach kids important lessons about empathy, responsibility, and caring. “Learning that someone else’s perspective might differ from their own is really important, especially for young children,” says Megan Mueller, an associate professor of human-animal interaction at Tufts University in the United States. 

“That’s an easier lesson to learn, perhaps, with an animal than it is with, say, a sibling or a peer.”

However, some claims about the positive effects of pets on kids go farther, implying that owning a pet is linked to greater levels of empathy and that pets can affect kids’ social skills, physical health, and even cognitive development. Pet care can help lower stress and create opportunities for supportive bonding for families with autistic children.

Additional studies demonstrate that children benefit immediately from animals as well. In one set of studies, children who had a dog in the room performed better on an object categorization task and required fewer prompts on a memory task. Even the act of thinking of our pets as family members has been found to improve wellbeing in research, at least for adults. However, headlines highlighting the many advantages of pet ownership have drawn criticism because people tend to believe that their pets make them happier and healthier even when objective measurements don’t support this claim.

Having conversations with others and pets

So, are pets truly at the root of all these benefits, or do we just think they are? One of the researchers trying to separate cause from effect is Hayley Christian, an associate professor at the University of Western Australia in Perth’s School of Population and Global Health.

Christian and colleagues used data from a longitudinal study of four thousand children between the ages of five and seven to find that having a pet was linked to more prosocial behavior and fewer peer problems. In a different study, it was discovered that kids between the ages of two and five who had a family dog were generally more active, spent less time on screens, and slept more.

The physical activity facilitated by dogs, like taking family dog walks, was crucial in producing the desired results.

They then combined these two pieces of the puzzle in a study that was published the previous year. The researchers observed that children who regularly participated in dog-related physical activity had better developmental outcomes after adjusting for variables like socioeconomic status.

“We can actually say that children having pets and interacting with them over time in early childhood does seem to cause these added benefits in terms of their social-emotional development,” says Christian, who is also a senior research fellow at the Telethon Kids Institute.

This is not to argue that every family should own a dog or that kids who have dogs are inherently better off than kids who don’t. Life with a pet can be less than ideal due to behavioral problems, complicated medical needs, and the cost of pet care. Families who reside in non-pet-friendly housing encounter additional challenges. According to Mueller, “I don’t think we’ll ever get to the point where we recommend that everyone with a kid gets a dog.”

In fact, Mueller’s investigation into whether or not pet ownership improved the mental health of American teenagers during the COVID-19 pandemic revealed that there seemed to be no discernible difference between the two groups. “My hypothesis is that Covid was a huge stressor and there probably isn’t one thing that’s enough to overcome it,” she says.

It’s also possible that one of the benefits of having a dog in our lives was interrupted by the pandemic.“We get the social benefits from interacting with the dog, but there’s also this way in which animals can facilitate social interaction with other people,” says Mueller. During lockdowns, teenagers might have stuck to their daily dog walks but avoided conversations with other dog walkers, losing out on small moments of social interaction.

Building a strong relationship

Pets have a positive impact on children, but their relationship is more important than just sharing a home when it comes to that. According to Mueller, “having a pet in the house does not appear to be a better predictor of some of these health outcomes than relationship quality.”

Spending time with a pet is one aspect. In contrast to a family dog that you walk every day after school, you are probably not going to get very attached to your sibling’s room-dwelling hamster.

A child’s age can also help determine how solid their relationship with a particular pet becomes. Between the ages of six and ten, children form closer relationships with animals that are more like themselves—such as dogs and cats—than they do with species that are biologically distant from them, such as fish and birds. However, older kids, those between the ages of 11 and 14, say they have the same level of attachment to less closely related animals as they do to their dogs or cats, including mice.

Family dynamics also play a part. The Australian longitudinal study saw that children without siblings can especially benefit from pets – perhaps because they sometimes act as a surrogate sibling. “Parents are more likely to allow their child to be independently mobile [for example, run an errand alone] if they went with a sibling or a friend,” says Christian. “And guess what else? A dog.”

Even in-home social interactions can benefit from having pets. According to research, pets in foster homes can offer companionship on their own and help foster carers and children develop close relationships.

When children get to know their pets, it opens them up to a deeper understanding of animals in the wider world. 

According to John Bradshaw, a former student of companion animal behavior at the University of Bristol in the United Kingdom and the author of multiple books on cats and dogs, “they tend to learn from their pet, somehow, how to be more understanding, empathetic and responsive to animals in general.”

According to a UK study, kids who had pets at home were more likely to believe that animals have minds of their own—that is, that they have feelings and thoughts of their own.

He claims that even though you may have all kinds of fantastical tales about lions in your head, you will never actually see one in the wild unless someone takes you to Africa. “However, a dog or a cat is nearby and can instruct you on what it’s truly like to be an animal, that is, that animals are not people and that they have unique lives that are theirs and not ours.”

Little infants are also observing and learning about the animals they share their home with. By the time they were 10 months old, babies from homes with pets were more adept at identifying animal faces than babies from homes without pets, according to research by Karinna Hurley and Lisa Oakes at the University of California, Davis in the US.

What’s more, a child’s relationship with their pet could provide a much-needed link with nature. “To have a real living, breathing, slightly messy animal running around the house is a good way of making those connections,” says Bradshaw.

What do animals think of kids?

Recalling our pets’ untamed beginnings can help us understand how they view our families.

Dogs have the ability to build incredibly close relationships with humans because they were designed to live with us. Conversely, cats are inherently solitary animals. They do, however, appear to consider their human housemates to be family. In his book The Animals Among Us, Bradshaw states, “Our cats greet us by raising their tails and rubbing around our legs—exactly what they do when they meet another cat they know well or consider a family member.”

However, a pet’s own early experiences will determine whether or not this kinship extends to children.

Both dogs and cats have a short period of time—between eight and sixteen weeks of age for puppies—during which they learn about the kinds of people they might meet in their lifetime. “We know that if puppies or kittens have not met children at all by the time they get to six months or so – depending on their underlying temperament – they can display really quite adverse reactions,” says Bradshaw. “That suggests that they don’t really recognise children as human, unless they’ve been introduced to them as part of the humanity package.”

This makes perfect sense when you look at it from the animal’s point of view, he says: “A baby is nothing like an adult human. It’s much smaller, it can’t stand up, it makes very different noises to an adult human, and it smells very different to an adult human.”

To ensure that everyone gets along, it’s essential to comprehend how a pet perceives the world. If a cat urinates on a new cot or pram brought into the house, it’s easy to jump to conclusions. “If you were not sympathetic to the way the cat thinks you might think, ‘Oh, the cat’s just getting cross because I’m going to have a baby, it must know’,” says Bradshaw. “Of course, they don’t know. The cat frequently loses its familiar points of reference because the olfactory environment—the smell of the house—has been disturbed.

Both cats and dogs rely heavily on their noses, so having lots of new smells in the house is like “coming home and finding that someone has painted your walls completely opposite colors,” says Bradshaw. On the flip side, familiar scents can keep them happy. In one experiment, Bradshaw and his associates placed a dog owner’s t-shirt inside their bed. He claims that the dog was much more at ease because of the comforting scent.

It’s crucial to avoid anthropomorphizing our pets, or expecting them to act and think like people, especially when it concerns a child’s safety. According to Bradshaw, “you can never be 100% sure how a dog is going to react in any given situation. “It’s crucial to avoid anthropomorphizing our pets, or expecting them to act and think like people, especially when it concerns a child’s safety. According to Bradshaw, “you can never be 100% sure how a dog is going to react in any given situation.”

Children, on the other hand, consider their pets to be among the most significant individuals in their lives. They view these animals as reliable confidantes when it comes to keeping secrets and as sources of comfort and emotional support. Some of those benefits “are very difficult to quantify because they’re very individual, and science deals in populations and big numbers,” says Bradshaw. “Just because it’s not very tangible and easily measured, it doesn’t mean it’s not real.”