Pets can be a wonderful source of comfort for children. In my practice, when I ask kids about the members of their family, they often list their pets. Research also shows that having a dog around can help children feel less stressed when they face medical or dental examinations (Nagengast, Baun, Megel, & Leibowitz, 1997; Havener et al., 2001).
Unconditional love and acceptance from a pet may be especially valuable for older tweens and young teens. As they head toward adolescence, children navigate greater academic pressures, increasingly complicated social relationships, hormones, and rapidly changing views of who they are. They want to feel cool and capable, but they often feel self-conscious and self-critical. They crave more freedom, and rely less on parents than when they were younger, but they also feel less certain of themselves due to all the changes in and around them. These years can be a challenging developmental period and having an uncritical animal best friend may make it easier for kids to cope.
Children’s relationships with pets versus siblings
A study by Matthew Cassels of the University of Cambridge and his colleagues (2017) suggests that children on the cusp of the teen years may have better relationships with their pets than their siblings.
The researchers had 77 12-year-olds complete questionnaires asking about the quality of their relationships with their pets and their siblings. Questions included, “How good is your relationship with your pet/sibling?” “How much do you share your secrets and private feelings with your pet/sibling?” and “How much do you and your pet/sibling get upset with or mad at each other?”
Overall, study participants said they were more satisfied with their relationship with their pets than their relationships with their siblings. They also reported having less conflict with their pets than their siblings—presumably because the pets, unlike siblings, never say mean things or argue back! Dog owners were more satisfied with their pet relationship and reported more companionship than owners of other pets (which included mostly cats, plus a sprinkling of rabbits, guinea pigs, hamsters, fish, a chicken, and 2 unspecified animals).
Children’s ratings of companionship and disclosure were similar for pets and siblings, suggesting that these two relationships can serve similar functions. Apparently, the fact that pets can’t hold up their end of a conversation doesn’t make kids less likely to confide in them rather than siblings. Maybe kids even see it as an advantage that a pet will never reveal their secrets!
Boys and girls were equally satisfied with their relationship with their pets, but girls said they confided in their pets to a greater extent and hung out with their pets more than boys did. Girls also reported more conflict with their pets than boys did, which is consistent findings that girls tend to be more communicative than boys (e.g., Donovan & MacIntyre, 2004). It may be that boys and girls interact differently with their pets. Alternatively, boys and girls may just view their relationship with pets differently.
This study was primarily aimed at seeing whether an intimacy questionnaire could be adapted to describe children’s relationships with their pets. The findings about comparisons between children’s ratings of their relationships with their pets versus their siblings are intriguing but not definitive.
We don’t know whether children’s ratings of their pet relationships translate to actual behavior or whether the quality of those relationships influences children’s well-being. Are pets just a general positive presence or do kids turn to their pets for comfort particularly when they are stressed? Are there certain types of problems that kids are more likely to confide to their pets rather than their siblings? Can a good relationship with a pet make up for a bad relationships with a sibling? Are pets more important for kids who don’t have siblings? Are there certain types of children—perhaps those who are more shy or emotionally sensitive—who particularly benefit from having a pet? How do pet relationships compare with friend relationships?
It would also be interesting to see if the importance of pet relationships varies for children at different ages. This study involved only 12-year olds. Are there particular ages when kids benefit most from having a pet? Over time, do kids’ relationships with their pets deepen or diminish?
This study gives us a glimpse into some of the ways that pets matter for children.
Unfortunately, as many parents in pet-owning families know, loving a pet doesn’t necessarily translate to taking care of that pet. Parents in this study reported that only 36% of children regularly fed their pets.
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Cassels, M. T., White, N., Gee, N., & Hughes, C. (2017). One of the family? Measuring early adolescents’ relationships with pets and siblings. Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology, 49, 12-20.
Donovan, L. A., & MacIntyre, P. D. (2004). Age and sex differences in willingness to communicate, communication apprehension, and self-perceived competence. Communication Research Reports, 21, 420–427.
Havener, L., Gentes, L., Thaler, B., Megel, M. E., Baun, M. M., Driscoll, F. A., … Agrawal, N. (2001). The effects of a companion animal on distress in children undergoing dental procedures. Issues in Comprehensive Pediatric Nursing, 24, 137.
Nagengast, S. L., Baun, M. M., Megel, M., & Leibowitz, M. J. (1997). The effects of the presence of a companion animal on physiological arousal and behavioral distress in children during a physical examination. Journal of Pediatric Nursing, 12, 323–330.