The Role of Pets in Child Development

A number of studies have investigated how children interact with pets and how they view their relationships with animals, including pets. These studies have demonstrated major developmental changes in how children interact with pets. For example, toddlers (2 to 3 years old) are more likely to hit, poke, or grab their pets (behaviors that might be considered aggressive) than are older children. Three- to 4-year-old children tend to pet their animals more than engage in other behaviors, while 5- and 6-year-olds generally hug, stroke, and massage their pets, suggesting both more sophisticated and "gentle" physical contact patterns and more empathetic social relationships. These age-based changes in patterns of behavioral interactions with pets are generally parallel to the developmental changes in interaction patterns that children have with familiar humans, including parents, siblings, and peers.

Examination of children's attitudes toward pets reveals that many of them ascribe a rich range of social attributes to these animals. Some of these attributes--especially love and affection, companionship, intimacy, and nurturance--also are used in the children's description of their relationships with other specific people, but other attributes-- for example, ownership and entertainment--are uniquely ascribed to pets. Consider the attributes of companionship and love and affection. Most children rate their own pets very high on both characteristics while they rate neighborhood animals high on companionship but not on love and affection. (By way of comparison, siblings tend to be rated high on companionship but not on love and affection, while the reverse is the case for ratings of grandparents.) Taken as a whole, these results suggest that children's relationships with familiar animals, especially pets, are unique and different from their relationships with others in their social world. The relationship with pets typically is complementary to these other relationships rather than a substitute for any one type of human relationship.

Of course, children differ in their attitudes and relationships toward pets, and some of these differences can be related to factors such as family size, presence or absence of younger siblings, and family income (most of the studies to date have been limited to samples of children from stable, suburban middle-class families, and generalization to other groups of children may not be valid). The long-term consequences for children of establishing such relationships with pets and other animals have not been studied to date in any detail, although a number of studies of children in diverse family circumstances suggest that, at least for some, the presence of a pet is greatly beneficial. On the one hand, it has been suggested that exposure to pets should facilitate the establishment and maintenance of relationships with peers, especially in grade and high school.

On the other hand, there has been some concern that children who establish too intense a relationship with a pet may suffer in the development of sophisticated and meaningful relationships with other people. More research is needed to determine what such long-term consequences might be and to identify any conditions, situations, or characteristics of particular children whose specific relationships with their pets put them at risk for developing problems in subsequent social, emotional, and cognitive development.