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.

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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?

Zazie Todd, PhD, is the author of Wag: The Science of Making Your Dog Happy. She is the founder of the popular blog Companion Animal Psychology, where she writes about everything from training methods to the human-canine relationship. She also writes a column for Psychology Today and has received the prestigious Captain Haggerty Award for Best Training Article in 2017. Todd lives in Maple Ridge, BC, with her husband and two cats.

Useful links:
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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  1. I believe that having a pet at a young age is definitely beneficial in helping shape how kids will be in their communities. I know that growing up with a pet and having to care for someone other than myself helped me be more altruistic in life. It promotes a pro social behavior in kids. If a child has a pet to take care of when they are young, they see that some people or animals depend on others to survive or even get by. Making them more likely to be a good Samaritan and helping others. whether it be at the grocery store, helping a kid that is getting bullied, or even holding the door for someone. I really think that every child should have a pet that is their responsibility. Not only does it teach respect and loyalty it also teaches love.

  2. I agree with Megan Mueller that having a pet can be a big influence on having people be part of their community. Whether it is a dog or cat, both can affect you beneficially with being part of your community, social psychology is what we could narrow this down to. Our thoughts and feeling towards our pets and be put out to our community and help influence others while doing so. I grew up with my golden retriever and she had difficulties as a puppy and needed 24 hour watch, when I was caring for her, I took a step back and saw that helping an animal is just like helping a person/community. All you want in return when you help with something should be just to see smiles on faces and that you put your heart and soul into what you did. Looking at the survey that Megan held, it showed that a majority of the people were involed with animal related activites.This could be that when young people with pets see that theirs loyalty involed and that being a pet owner is just like having another family member. Pets influncence us to go out and be loyal to one another even if there a total stranger, for example it you participate in the pay it forward in the drive thur and pay for the car behind you, or even help someone cross the street. We don't expect anything in return because being part of a community is all about putting our heart out there and lending a hand. Also I thing young people/teens should always get the chance to grow up with a pet because it helps them be a leader and teaches them not just responsibilities but also that they need to care about others.

    Cheyenne Price

  3. As a parent of boys I feel that it is extremely health for children to care for and to love an animal. By having a pet of their own my sons have learned patience, caring, and nurturing. The have found what it means to care for something other than themselves. In turn I have watched my sons go out into their community and give onto others. They have helped organize food drives, and collected money for different charities. My sons have not conformed or changed their behaviors, and judgment to match that of their peers. Instead of being obedient to their peers they chose to take a different path. Choosing one that is morally correct and giving to themselves and to others.

  4. I believe taking care of pets dose help younger people be more social and helpful to other animals and strangers. The understanding of giving to something that cannot give anything back in return gives a “feel good, do good” effect. I also believe that it helps create younger people who display altruism in life. Also younger pet owner will learn that they do not have to conform to others thoughts or judgment opinions. I feel they do not conform because they have learned to take care of a pet they had to figure out what worked and didn’t for the pet to have the best care. I believe younger pet owners have morals that are harder to break because of the bonds they had made with their pets.

  5. Having an animal that you love and cherish, and therefore inevitably take excellent care off, will teach the importance of responsibility- towards others as well as one's self. Many people in the world today have a very "me" based attitude, because we are taught that we should always put ourselves first. My belief is that we need to take the time to help one another out sometimes, and remember that being responsible for something (a pet) more than ourselves can help teach that. Animals are great companions and can teach us how to love unconditionally. Caring for an animal is a very pro social behavior, in that it must be done for the animal whether or not you want to, but also in that it makes the caretaker feel more important since they are needed by the animal. Often when we help another person, we say "I'm sure they would do the same for me," or "they better help me when I need it." A pet is different- caring for them is altruistic- we do it because they need it. For young people to learn this concept and carry it with them through life would help to lessen our culture's bystander effect due to the diffusion of responsibility, where everyone expects someone else to help, and ultimately no nobody does.


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