Is Caring for Animals Good for Young People's Social Development?

A new study finds that young people who have pets are more connected to their communities than those who don't.

A young woman playing with her dog in a park in Berlin
Photo: Jasmin Awad / Shutterstock

By Zazie Todd, PhD

The study, by Megan Mueller (Tufts University), is published in the journal Applied Developmental Science. It is based on a survey of 567 young people in the US aged between 18 and 26, and was part of a wider longitudinal study called the 4-H study. 

The questionnaire asked whether or not participants owned an animal, how often they were responsible for its care if they did, and whether they were involved in other activities with animals. Other questions asked about their contribution to society, commitment to animals, morality about animals, attachment to and emotions about animals. The researchers also looked at what are called the 5Cs of positive youth development – competence, confidence, connection, character and caring.

The results showed a correlation between taking part in animal-related activities and higher scores on a scale called Contribution. This is a measure of how much young people contribute to their communities by helping friends and neighbours, being of service to their communities, and showing leadership. These questions also asked about the value youth place on contributing to society.

Amongst those young people who had a pet, those who were more responsible for its care were also significantly more likely to report contributing to society. Similarly, those who took part in an animal-related activity more often also had higher scores for Contribution.

Another finding is that feelings of emotional attachment to an animal were correlated to feeling connected to society, caring, and greater feelings of competence. This suggests that caring for animals may help youth develop the social skills needed to feel sympathy and empathy, for both animals and people. There could be several reasons for this. It could be that there are parallels in human-animal relationships and relationships between people, or it could be simply that having a pet increases interactions with other people. 

Mueller says, “Our findings suggest that it may not be whether an animal is present in an individual’s life that is most significant but rather the quality of that relationship. The young adults in the study who had strong attachments to pets reported feeling more connected to their communities and relationships.”

These results are a snapshot at one moment in time, and do not show causality. It is possible that only young people who are in a relatively positive situation are in a position to obtain and care for a pet.

Future research could take a longitudinal approach to investigating the relationship between human-animal interaction and youth development. The 4-H study was a national study that followed over 7000 young people from grade 5 through to after high school, but only the final survey asked about animal-related activities. 

This survey asked mostly about positive aspects of young people’s development, although it did also include a measure of depression, and of how well people self-regulate (for example, how they cope with set-backs). There was no relation between these and animal-related activities. Future research could include a different mix of both positive and negative traits. 

The results chime with other studies of younger people, such as Maggie O’Haire’s recent work on the benefits of animals in the classroom to children with and without special needs

What do you think are the benefits of pet ownership for young people?

Mueller, M.K. (2014). Is human-animal interaction (HAI) linked to positive youth development? Initial answers. Applied Developmental Science, 18 (1), 5-16 DOI: 10.1080/10888691.2014.864205

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