What Pets Do Children Have, And Which Do They Prefer?

Children have different relationships with dogs than cats.

Some people have wonderful memories of the pets they had as a child, running through meadows with the dog or playing dress-up with the cat. Others never particularly cared for the animal or spent time with it. Why do some people have such apparently idyllic relationships with their childhood pets, while others don’t?

An Asian boy with his Alaskan Klee Kai puppy in a field in summer

A fascinating new study led by Dr. Carri Westgarth of the University of Liverpool investigates pet ownership amongst 9 and 10 year old children. The study took part in a deprived area of Liverpool where there is relatively high unemployment. It was part of a wider study that all local primary [elementary] schools are invited to take part in; hence a large number of children completed the survey and they are representative of this area, if not of the UK as a whole.

Just over a thousand children took part, and demographic information was available for 90% of these. Questions were asked about the main home, but almost a third of children reported also spending some time at another home (e.g. through divorce). Almost all of the children lived in a house, rather than an apartment or other type of home. 84% of the children were white (UK), 2% were Black (UK), and the remainder were other or mixed ethnicities. 12% were only children and 43% were the youngest of siblings. 

Sixty-seven per cent of the children said they had a pet, and the most common pet was a dog, followed by cats and rodents. Girls were more likely than boys to own all types of pet, apart from rabbits. Of those who didn’t currently own a pet, just over half had had a pet in the previous five years. 

Type of pet
Children who own it (%)
Other (e.g. fish, snake)

The children who owned dogs reported that their families had between 1 and 9 dogs. They were asked to describe the breed of up to three dogs in the home. The most common types of dog were Staffordshire Bull Terriers, Shih Tzus, and mixed breeds.

Two per cent of children reported living with a Pit Bull or Pit Bull cross, even though they are illegal in the UK. While the researchers say this fits with some anecdotal evidence, they also note that it was children who described the breed and it has not been verified. Looking at bull-breeds as a whole, including Staffordshire Bull Terriers, 10% of the children were living in a house with a bull-breed dog. Given the media hype about bull breeds, this is surprising. The researchers found that households in more deprived areas of the sample were more likely to have a bull-breed dog. The prevalence of bull breeds could be because they are perceived as 'status' dogs, but could also be partly due to the fact the Kennel Club says of the Staffordshire Bull Terrier that “his genuine love for children is well known.” 

The age of pet dogs ranged from 0 to 20 years old, with most being around 3 or 4. Sixteen per cent of them were ‘outside’ dogs that mainly lived in the garden or yard. The children also reported how often their dogs were walked: 42% were walked once a day or more, 37% a few times a week, 17% less than once a week, and the remainder were not walked at all.

The children with pets were asked which was their favourite; just over half chose a dog and 15% chose a cat, although it should be remembered that more children owned dogs than other pets.  They were also asked questions on attachment such as whether they confide in the animal and whether it sleeps on their bed. Children showed more attachment to dogs compared to cats. This suggests they may have different relationships with dogs and cats.

This is very interesting, especially since a survey last year of Americans found that those who had owned a dog as a child were more likely to own one as an adult, but the same did not hold true for cats. Perhaps children’s attachment to their pets predicts later experiences with animals? Other research has shown that even very young children are interested in animals (LoBue et al 2013), and that children are more attached to dogs if they are perceived as more trainable (Hoffman et al 2013). It would be interesting to see more research on children’s attachment to pets of various species.

Even though girls were more likely to have pets than boys, both girls and boys had equally strong relationships with their pets. This makes me wonder why more boys didn't have pets.

One lovely finding of this study is simply that children like to talk about their pets and were very happy to tell the researchers all about them. Another finding relates to the questions about attachment, which were from a widely-used, standardized test. The questions asked whether the pet sleeps on the bed and whether the child grooms them, neither of which is possible for fish, and apparently some children commented on this. Perhaps the question about sleeping should be changed to whether the pet sleeps in the child’s bedroom, rather than on the bed. In any case, it seems to have under-reported on children’s attachment to fish.  

This paper is packed with fascinating information. It is open-access and you can read it by clicking the link below.

The children in this study tended to show more attachment to dogs than cats, and were more likely to pick a dog as their favourite pet. 

Which animal do you think makes the best childhood pet?

AHA and PetSmart (2012) Keeping pets (dogs and cats) in homes: A three-phase retention study.
Hoffman, C.L., Chen, P., Serpell, J.A. and Jacobson, K. (2013) Do dog behavioral characteristics predict the quality of the relationship between dogs and their owners? Human-Animal Interaction Bulletin, 1(1), 20-37.
Lobue, V., Bloom Pichard, M., Sherman, K., Axford, C. and DeLoache, J.S, (2013) Young children's interest in live animals. The British Journal of Developmental Psychology, 31: 57-59. 
Westgarth, C., Boddy, L.M., Stratton, G. German, A.J., Gaskell, R.M., Coyne, K.P., Bundred, P., McCune, S. and Dawson S. (2013) Pet ownership, dog types and attachment to pets in 9-10 year old children in Liverpool. BMC Veterinary Research, 9.

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