The adoption of a pet into a family for the sake of young children is very common in many homes. Over 71 million American households (62%) have a pet, and most people think of their pets as members of the family. Therefore, as the size of the typical family household in the United States decreases, many children may be more likely to grow up with a pet than with a younger sibling, two parents, or a grandparent in their home. While there is a general consensus that it is indeed beneficial for children to be around animals; as it builds up children’s immune systems, it develops social skills, it teaches children basic responsibilities like feeding and encourages exercise, is there actual scientific evidence to back up these assertions? Can this be proved?
Aside from research into the traditional effects of animals on children’s health, research into human-animal interaction is surprisingly uncommon. However, in 2011 scientists at the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, in collaboration with the Waltham Centre for Pet Nutrition, published research looking at how animal interaction affects children and promotes optimal development. While the studies conducted were limited and are ongoing, the signs are encouraging.
According to Alan Beck, director of the Center for the Human-Animal Bond at Purdue University, the general feeling held by parents that a pet is good for kids is true, to some degree. Indeed, a study published in 1990 found that children who grow up with pets demonstrate more empathy, are usually more popular with classmates and are more involved in activities such as sports, hobbies, clubs or chores (Melson et al 1990).
Another example is from a collaborative study conducted with Washington State University. A controlled trial was conducted to determine the effects of an equine-facilitated learning program. Over a period of 2 years, a total of 113 interested 5th-8th grade children participated. The program consisted of an 11-week session of once-weekly 90-minute lessons of individual, team, and group-focused equine-facilitated learning activities. Post-test results demonstrated a significant positive difference in social competence between the experimental and control groups. These findings are important, not only for the direct benefits of improved social competence, but because possession of strong personal and social skills have been linked to improved social and academic outcomes for youth (Pendry 2012; Pendry and Roeter 2012).
Indeed, the benefits of a family pet extend far beyond the home. A growing number of service dogs are being employed in the medical field and in the courtroom as stress relievers for children.
In conclusion, while this is an area of research that is still in diapers, all indicators point towards dogs and cats as being real winners. However, science aside, it rare that you will come across someone who doesn’t fondly remember the love of a childhood pet or a neighbor’s pet, and really, we don’t need research to confirm those memories.