Do Children Help Care for the Family Pet?

…Or does mom do it all?

A happy young girl with her pet rabbit
Photo: Samuel Borges Photography / Shutterstock

By Zazie Todd, PhD

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How should children learn to take some responsibility for family pets such as dogs and cats? New research by Janine Muldoon et al (University of St Andrews) investigates children’s perspectives of the division of labour in relation to their pets.

The exploratory study involved focus groups with children aged 7, 9, 11 and 13. The researchers planned equal numbers of boys and girls, but constraints meant that 30 girls and only 23 boys took part. 

The main ‘caring’ activity that children took part in with their pet was playing with it. Some of the children were very honest in admitting they did not otherwise take care of the animal. For example, one 13-year old girl, Isla*, said,

“She (mum) cleaned it and I just played with it.”

The older children suggested they played in a way that included what the animal wanted, compared to when they were younger when they treated it more like a toy. The children were vague, however, on other aspects of animal care, even when saying they had responsibility for it.  

While playing with animals is fun, it does not give a full picture of what it is like to look after a pet, or help children develop their abilities. The researchers say, “While most parents understandably want to safeguard their children and their animals, refusal to let children take responsibility where they want to (with support) ultimately sends the message that they are not competent enough.”

Both boys and girls agreed that the owner of the pet should be the one to look after it. However, when it came to who actually looks after the pet, while girls tended to pick mum, dad, or children, boys were more likely to say children and less likely to say dad. Girls were more likely to suggest there should be some kind of shared responsibility within the family. Gendered role expectations are apparent in the answers. For example, when asked who should care for pets, one boy, Ewan* (age 13), said:

“I’d probably say the person who it belongs to, because it’s their responsibility and mums because that’s what they normally do.”

Many children said they were not allowed to do some aspects of pet care, either because they were not able to or because of issues to do with the animal, such as it behaving in a way they would find difficult to manage. They also wanted to avoid some responsibilities, especially the “disgusting” jobs. Boys in particular did not want to do the job of cleaning up.

Rural children seemed to have more responsibility for looking after their animals than children who did not live in a rural area. 

The results show a tension between some children not taking enough responsibility for pet care, and others who reported that their relationship was less positive if they were involved. The challenge is to teach children how to care for animals – other than playing with them – in a way that is age-appropriate. 

The researchers say, “our findings are strongly suggestive of a role for educators in developing a model of care that specifies the sequence of activities children can be encouraged to engage in to move towards more comprehensive care. Guidance for parents on how to manage the process of allowing children more and more responsibility may be particularly useful. A fine balance needs to be struck between educating children on the full gamut of caring for a pet, while supporting them so they feel responsibility is, and should be, shared and not solely in their hands.”

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When you were a child, did you help care for the family pet(s)?

Zazie Todd, PhD, is the award-winning author of Wag: The Science of Making Your Dog Happy and Purr: The Science of Making Your Cat Happy. She is the creator of the popular blog, Companion Animal Psychology, writes The Pawsitive Post premium newsletter, and also has a column at Psychology Today. Todd lives in Maple Ridge, BC, with her husband, one dog, and two cats. 

Useful links:

Muldoon, J., Williams, J., & Lawrence, A. (2014). 'Mum cleaned it and I just played with it': Children's perceptions of their roles and responsibilities in the care of family pets Childhood DOI: 10.1177/0907568214524457

You might also like: What Pets do Children Have, and Which do they Prefer? 
Are Young Children More Interested in Animals than Toys?
*Not their real names.

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