Parents often obtain a pet because they consider them to be good for their
children. These parents will state that their children become more responsible,
are more sociable and develop character.26 However, the relationship between
humans and animals and especially the influence of pets on children is a
relatively new area for scientific research. One of the first to investigate
this area was the American child psychologist Boris Levinson.33 Levinson worked
with a boy who had many problems associated with social contact. On one occasion
Levinson happened to have his dog with him in the office. The dog was not
usually permitted into the office when clients were expected, but on this day
the boy arrived earlier than expected for his appointment. The boy began to
interact with the dog and to Levinson's surprise spoke to the dog; Levinson had
not been able to provoke speech during the previous month. This was the
beginning of his research, which has inspired many others to investigate this
Early studies were mainly case studies, later followed by questionnaire, survey
and interview approaches. Although a considerable number of interesting studies
have since been reported, the mechanisms that lie behind the results obtained
One of the problems is that it is difficult to conduct experimental research in
this area. For example it is not possible to force people to take a pet while
others are told that they cannot own one. It is therefore difficult to say
anything about causal relationships. Sometimes in children's homes it is
possible to give an animal to certain groups, while other similar groups do not
get one, but this kind of study is rare and it is difficult to generalize these
data to children living with their families under 'normal' circumstances. To
overcome the problem of causality, longitudinal studies can be conducted but
these are time consuming and expensive.26
Despite these difficulties, some research has been carried out on the question
of whether or not pets have an influence on the development of children. Melson
and Peet40 found that being attached to a pet is related to positive emotional
functioning. Bergesen10 affirmed this and wrote that positive self-esteem of
children is enhanced by owning a pet. According to Poresky and Hendrix,46 it is
not only social emotional development, but also cognitive development that can
be enhanced by owning pets. In these and other studies it was possible to
measure relationships and to demonstrate that there were some effects, yet the
mechanisms that lie behind these effects did not attract much attention.
Theoretical implications to be drawn from these investigations could provide
more insight into the mechanisms which cause these effects.
During the last decade of developmental psychology there has been more attention
paid to why some children fail to develop properly under severe circumstances
while others develop well. Several models have evolved to take account of the
variables that influence the development of children.1, 9, 50-52 Although these
models have much in common, they concentrate on different aspects of development
and the variables that influence that development. This review gives an
explanatory outline of child development and the variables that influence that
development. The research conducted on the influence of pets on the development
of children will be reviewed with reference to Belsky's model.9
The Development of Children
Child development is an ongoing process. Children have to master tasks
concerning cognitive development, as well as social and emotional development.
There are several variables influencing this development. In Belsky's model9
three domains of variables are identified: the characteristics of the child,
personal psychological resources of the parents and contextual sources of stress
and support. These domains interact with each other and will determine how the
child will develop. A differentiation can be made between 'child
characteristics' and 'child development'. In the domain of personal
psychological resources of the parents the 'personality', the 'work', the
'marital relations' and the 'parenting style' are important factors and in the
domain of contextual sources of stress and support 'social network' and 'peer
group' and also 'housing conditions', can be important.
A child's characteristics include genetically determined factors such as
temperament and intelligence. These factors influence the development of the
child, but as they are relatively stable and cannot be influenced to a great
extent by other variables such as parenting, they will not be discussed further.
Child development consists of both social-emotional development and cognitive
development. Social emotional development can be measured by self-esteem and a
positive social orientation of the child, but social skills and a sense of
social or moral responsibility can also contribute to the building of
self-esteem. The level of cognitive development can be examined, when children
learn to read, write and are able to do mathematics. The development of the
child is also influenced by the social network of that child. For instance if
the child has no friends their social development will be different from a child
who has many friends. Cochran and Brassard20 found that the support provided by
social networks can enhance self-esteem. There is considerable evidence that
effective social support contributes to mental health and some evidence that it
may provide a buffering, protective function against psychosocial stress.21, 44
Parents are very important in the life of a child, therefore parenting will
influence the development of that child. Parental use of induction or reasoning,
consistent discipline and expression of warmth have been found to relate
positively to self-esteem and intellectual achievement during the school-age
years.9 Parents should also be sensitive to the needs of their children. The
model of parental functioning assumes that there is a link between parents'
psychological well-being and their parental functioning that can be traced back
to the parents' own experiences while growing up. The developmental history of
the parents will thus influence their personality. Other factors such as marital
relations also influence parenting. It has been found that marital is the most
important form of support and Belsky8 found that a positive marital relationship
is a major supporting factor in competent parenting. This model can be extended
by adding family relations and cohesion, in cases where family members are able
to rely on each other and feel that accepted stressful experiences can be
Apart from the beneficial effect of social support on the development of
children, social networks can also have a beneficial influence on parenting. One
of the reasons social networks are important is that they provide emotional
support. This support can be defined as the love and interpersonal acceptance an
individual receives from others, either through explicit statements to that
effect or as a result of considerate actions,9 so that people feel cared for and
The work status of the parents is the last variable included in Belsky's model
that can influence parenting. Unemployment can introduce a level of stress into
the family and will also influence the financial status.3 If both parents work,
the children may have other forms of daytime care, although there is no evidence
that this has a significant negative or positive influence on their
Having briefly discussed this model, it is important to remember that there will
be other variables influencing the development of the child which are not
mentioned in this model. However, we consider this model to be the most useful
framework for examining the potential influence of pets on the development of
children. It is also important to realize that the aforementioned variables are
not independent but influence each other. For instance, parenting influences the
social-emotional development of the child but this in turn influences parenting.
Thus, the development of children is a dynamic process whose key feature lies in
the process, not in the variable. There is a danger that researchers may
concentrate on the variables rather than on the mechanisms involved.55 For
pragmatic reasons, however, only the different variables in this relationship
will be examined in this review.
Direct Influences of Pets on the Development of Children
Child development can be separated into social emotional and cognitive
development. First the direct influences will be discussed, starting with social
There is scientific evidence that self-esteem is an important aspect of the
social emotional development of children.30, 50 If there are pets in the house,
parents and children frequently share in taking care of the pet, which suggests
that youngsters learn at an early age how to care for and nurture a dependent
animal.29 For younger children, involvement, positive reinforcement and
acceptance are important for building self-esteem. Accomplishing tasks
appropriate to their age, when taking care of the pet with their parents, makes
a child feel more competent. However, this process relies on parents knowing
which tasks are appropriate. A 3-year-old cannot walk a dog, but can help with
giving a dog water. If parents are aware of this fact, children receive positive
reinforcement from their parents when they take care of an animal in a
responsible way. As the child grows older the allocation of responsibility for
pet-care management changes in a child centered family. Pre-school children
enjoy imitating their parent's work, whereas the school-age child can manage
some tasks alone and the teenager independently can assume certain
responsibilities. Bergesen10 found that children's self-esteem scores increased
significantly over a nine month period of keeping pets in their school class
room. In particular, it was children with originally low self-esteem scores who
showed the greatest improvements. Covert et al.24 found that early adolescent
pet owners had higher self-esteem scores than non-pet owners. Davis25 found a
significant positive association between pre-adolescents' affective
relationships with the family dog and their perceived self-concept.
Another aspect of social-emotional development is empathy, the child's ability
to understand how someone else feels. According to Paul45 it is possible that by
interacting with pets that are totally dependent on the owner, children learn to
understand the feelings and needs of animals and those of fellow human beings
from an early age. Bryant14 found that children who owned pets felt more empathy
towards other people. Poresky and Hendrix47 also found that 3-6-year-old
pet-owning children achieved higher empathy scores than their non-pet-owning
counterparts. Ascione2 found that an animal-based humane education program in
elementary school was related to higher empathy scores amongst fourth graders
(although not amongst first, second and fifth graders). Poresky and Hendrix48
claim that it is not owning pets per se, but particularly the compassion
children feel towards pets, that is related to their empathy towards humans.
Pets also have been cited as providing important 'social' support.14, 27, 32
Bachman3 found that children regularly nominated pets when asked who they would
go to with a problem. Brickel13 reports that companion animals can provide
emotional support. Levinson35 believed that this sort of emotional support could
be important for the healthy psychological development of all children. The
'social' support given by pets has some advantages compared to the social
support given by humans. Pets can make people feel unconditionally accepted,
whereas fellow humans will judge and may criticize. Ross4 stated that social
support given by other humans can be threatening.
Enduring affection is a significant source of the potential benefit and pleasure
that pets can bring to children. Children sense that pets will love and accept
them unconditionally (even when the child gets angry or performs poorly at
school16) and provide a source of nonjudgemental affection.5 This does not mean
that pets can replace humans. They can give emotional support, but they cannot
give instrumental support, such as advice, or help with homework.
Poresky et a1.49 associated improved cognitive development with the bond between
children and pets. It has been suggested that pet ownership might facilitate
language acquisition and enhance verbal skills in children.22, 56 This would
occur as a result of the pet functioning both as a patient recipient of the
young child's babble and as an attractive verbal stimulus, eliciting
communication from the child in the form of praise, orders, encouragement and
punishment. However no real evidence has yet been offered to support these
hypotheses.46 More research is needed to find out whether pets could have any
influence on the cognitive development.
This review of the influence of pets on the development of children shows that
not all studies give the same results. This may be due to the fact that not
every child likes taking care of an animal, some may even be afraid. Poresky et
al.49 studied the attachment between the child and the pet. They found that
attachment between child and pet was a more reliable measure than the owning of
a pet per se. Melson39 also found that attachment to pets was positively related
to the self-esteem of children in kindergarten; but there was no relationship
between attachment to pets and self-esteem of second (mean age 8.14 years) and
fifth (mean age 12.01 years) graders. Attachment might seem to be a mediating
variable between the pet and the development of the child.
Indirect Influences of Pets on the Development of Children
Parents play an important role in pet selection since it is the attitudes of
parents which determine whether there will be a pet in the household and the
type of pet owned. Studies have shown that people who owned a pet in childhood
are significantly more likely to own a pet as an adult.26,45,57 People who had
experience of a pet during childhood have a more positive attitude towards
pets45 and a better understanding of the non-verbal signals of such a pet.6 Pet
ownership occurs significantly more often in families with school-aged children
and adolescents than in families without children.26, 42
Many parents admit that pets can be valuable tools with which to educate
children about life events.37, 56 Two such situations where parental reactions
probably influence children is when an animal is born or when it dies. Children
who have pets in the family will probably experience the death of an animal.
This is a painful experience and the way in which their parents and others near
to them deal with the situation will have an influence on how children cope with
death in general throughout their lives. It is important for parents to discuss
their feelings of sadness openly and to share the associated feelings with the
child. Parents have to show that it is all right to have such feelings. Learning
to cope with sad feelings, for instance when a pet dies or is euthanized, is
important and parents have to help their children with it. The veterinarian can
also play an important role here. To explain what happens when a pet is
euthanized in a way children can understand, will help the child with the
At the other end of an animal's life is birth. For most children the birth of
animals is an exciting moment that can give parents the opportunity to explain
how life begins and can form part of sex education.
Marital and Family Relations
Family influences are associated with both pet ownership/bonding and child
development. Paul45 found significant results suggesting that dog ownership was
associated with greater family cohesion. When a pet has been acquired there is
an initial increase in the frequency of children's social interactions, at least
within their own home. Cain18 found that of families surveyed in the USA, 52%
reported experiencing an increase in the time the family spent together after
they acquired their pets. As many as 70% reported an increase in family
happiness and fun subsequent to pet acquisition. These subjective data have
limitations, but suggest that people believe, or at least would like to believe,
that their pets enhance family cohesion and increase the time spent with each
other. Thus, people believe that pets act as social facilitators within the
Some research has reported that pets can play a particularly important role in
the lives of children who have inadequate or destructive family and social
environments.11, 34, 53 However, Bryant and Whorley17 found that children's use
of their pets for emotional support was most clearly related to a good
experience of such support from their parents. Poresky and Hendrix47 also found
that children with pets and a better home environment showed higher age-adjusted
child development scores.47
Sibling status and number are also significantly related to childhood pet
ownership. There is a tendency for children with fewer siblings and those with
no younger siblings in particular, to have more pets of their own and to appear
to be more pet-oriented.15, 38, 45 Perhaps single and youngest children use
animals to express feelings and perform behavior that other children are able to
direct towards their younger sisters or brothers.
Social Networks Influencing the Development of Children
Many people seem to experience social support in their interactions with animals
or with other people through companion animals. Mugford and M'Comisky43 used the
term social lubricant to describe the phenomenon where the presence of animals
increased social contacts between people. This effect has been noted by a number
of others.23, 35,36, 41,56 Guttman et al.23 suggested that the attractiveness of
a child's pet to other children may, as a secondary effect, enhance the
attractiveness of the child as a friend or playmate. MacDonald37 found that 84%
of the 31 10-year-olds he interviewed reported that social contacts occurred
with other children and adults while they exercised their dogs. Pet owning
children have also been found to be significantly more popular with their
classmates.23 Other results suggest that adolescent pet-owners are significantly
more lonely than adolescent non-owners.7 However, it is possible that people who
feel lonely obtain a pet to remedy the situation and so the issue of cause and
effect remains unclear. Longitudinal studies are required to shed more light on
the causal relationship and whether other variables play a mediating role.
It may not be ownership as such, but attachment to the pet that is important.
Melson39 has shown that involvement with a pet, and not simply pet ownership is
related to children's involvement in non-school social activities. Further
research is required to show whether or not attachment and involvement are the
same concepts in this context.
Social Networks Influencing Parenting
Research has demonstrated that social support is positively related to good
parental functioning. This is not surprising since social support and general
well-being have been repeatedly linked. In addition to the direct social support
provided by pets, they can also provide an indirect support by serving as a
catalyst for social contacts with other persons for both children and
parents.23, 35, 36, 41, 56
Parental Employment Status
Pets may play an important role when both parents are employed. It can be
suggested that pets provide a constant in children's lives and that they are
predictably responsive e.g. welcoming the children when they come home.
Unfortunately, no research has been conducted in this area. However, the
influence of pets on child development and parenting and whether this is
dependent on the parents' employment status ought to be investigated.
Can Pets Enhance the Development of Children?
The aim of this review was to set out the way in which pets could influence the
development of children. Our approach was to place published research data in a
theoretical framework. It becomes clear that pets can have positive influences
on certain aspects of child development. However, as stated earlier, causal
relationships are difficult to prove and more attention must be paid to the
mechanisms behind these influences.
Research to date has not been equally distributed in the different areas of
development. Areas that have been neglected include whether pets have a direct
influence on the cognitive development of children, or whether parents who allow
pets in their family manifest a different parental style to those who do not.
The employment status of the parents should also be taken into account when the
influence of pets on the development of children is studied. It is possible that
pets play different roles when both, one, or neither parent is employed.
It would be interesting to see whether children and parents who own animals have
better social networks than people without animals. Both the number and the
quality of contacts should be considered, since it is possible that while people
with pets may have more surface contacts, the quality of social support they
enjoy does not differ from people without animals.
When we talk about the development of children we also have to bear in mind both
the factors that facilitate the development (protective factors) and the factors
that can be a threat to this development (risk factors). From this review it
appears that pets can act as protective factors, but the research reported did
not consider potential negative aspects. For instance, it is possible that there
may be more stress in a family where no one is willing to take care of the
animal. Serpell58 on the other hand, suggested that benefits and problems with
pets and children can signal existing or impending crises within families.
Therefore some consideration should be given to the potential costs of owning
pets, in order to define those situations where the benefits are greater than
This review of the influence of pets on the development of children has made a
preliminary attempt to place the research results into a theoretical framework.
It can however be nothing more than a beginning. If we want to understand the
mechanisms that lie behind these results we need research guided by theoretical
frameworks in order to test developmental models and the roles of pets within
them. The consequence of these ideas is that research must focus on all aspects
of development and the pet child relationship. Such data is important for
parents, teachers and professionals working in mental and physical health care.
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