Pets May Help Children Learn About Animal Welfare

Children’s beliefs about animal welfare and sentience are linked to their own experiences with animals.

A girl and her pet cat look at each other with love and affection

By Zazie Todd, PhD

Surprisingly little is known about children’s beliefs and knowledge about animals. Yet this information could help to improve humane education programs for children. Two recent studies begin to fill this gap, with recommendations for how humane education is taught.

We know from previous research that even very young children like animals, and that children with pets are more likely to attribute biological concepts to animals than those without. Children’s experiences of caring for their pets mostly involve play, while the actual pet care is carried out by parents. Is it possible that even though these experiences are mostly social, children with pets will still have a better understanding of the care that pets need?

A series of group discussions with children aged 7 to 13 was conducted by Janine Muldoon (University of St. Andrews) et al (2016). The discussions lasted from 40 to 60 minutes, depending on school timetabling, and focussed on four types of animal: dogs, cats, guinea pigs and goldfish. Children were asked questions about how to care for the animals, how they knew when they needed care, and whether the animals have feelings.


Children’s answers showed a difference between what animals need in theory, and what was actually done in practice. Where they were unsure about an animal’s needs, their answers were framed in terms of their own experience, such as saying that a dog needed breakfast, lunch and dinner.

Answers also depended on the animal species. Dogs were seen as easier to understand if they needed something, although for all species the default position for an animal that needed something seemed to be ‘hunger’. Older children showed an understanding that some animals needed affection and interaction.

Children showed most knowledge about fish, and it seems that experiences of fish dying prompted them to consider what might have gone wrong. They also had knowledge about animals they did not themselves keep as pets. As you might expect, there were many gaps and variability in what they knew about animals and the five welfare needs.

Children talked about how they know what animals want. For instance, 11-year-old Caitlin* said,
“You can tell with a dog, because if they need the toilet they prance about and they brush up against your leg and they’ll go and sit at a door and then you kind of know. But then next they’ll be needing to be fed and he’ll go to this cupboard in the house and it’s where his biscuits sit. So he goes in and pulls the bags open and he’ll be able to get his head in and he brings it through in his mouth and he’ll drop it at my mum.”

A boy plays chess with his pet cat
Photos: Irina Kozorog (top) and Blend Images (  

Muldoon et al conclude,
“Children often express confusion and report being able to identify hunger and injury, but recognize few other cues of welfare state in their pets. As certain types of animals may not have the behavioral repertoire or reinforcement history to give clear cues of need, it seems important that educators cultivate some form of emotional concern for the specific animal they want children to understand better. Perhaps most at risk of negative welfare experiences are animals that are not perceived by children to be reciprocal in their interactions or appear less dependent on them for daily care and attention.”
A large questionnaire study of children from 6 to 13 years old was conducted by Roxanne Hawkins and Joanne Williams (University of Edinburgh) (2016). They investigated the relationship between beliefs about animal minds (BAM), namely that animals are sentient and have feelings, and attachment, compassion and attitudes to animals. This study looked at a range of animals: humans, dogs, goldfish, cows, chimpanzees, robins, badgers and frogs.

Children rated humans as the most sentient animals, followed by dogs and chimpanzees. They rated frogs and goldfish as least sentient.

Children who lived with pets had higher scores for beliefs about animal minds (BAM) than those without, and those who had their own pet or more than one pet had higher scores still. Those with dogs specifically gave higher ratings for the sentience of dogs.

Hawkins and Williams write that,
“The results from the study confirmed the hypothesis that Child-BAM [beliefs about animal minds] is positively related to attachment to pets and compassion to animals, humane behavior toward animals, as well as attitudes toward animals. The findings also confirmed that Child-BAM was negatively associated with acceptance of intentional and unintentional animal cruelty and animal neglect.”

Neither study shows a causal relationship between children’s pet ownership and beliefs or knowledge. Further research would be needed to look at this.

A girl poses for a photo with her pet bulldog
Photo: AlohaHawaii (

Dogs were most often considered to be sentient in both studies. Muldoon et al write that,
“the overwhelming emphasis on dogs throughout all phases of the focus groups suggests that they are the easiest animal with which to “connect.”” 

In Hawkins and Williams study, dogs were rated as having greater sentience than chimpanzees, though this could be because children were more familiar with dogs. In both studies, dogs were the most common pet.

These studies suggest that humane education should include developing emotional connections with animals and education about animal minds, as these are both likely to lead to more compassion toward animals and less tolerance of animal cruelty.

They also suggest that having a pet is a positive experience in terms of learning about animals and animal welfare. Further research can investigate the best ways to teach children about how to care for animals, whether or not they have a pet at home.

Do you think it’s important for children to have pets?

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.

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Hawkins, R., & Williams, J. (2016). Children’s Beliefs about Animal Minds (Child-BAM): Associations with Positive and Negative Child–Animal Interactions Anthrozoös, 29 (3), 503-519 DOI: 10.1080/08927936.2016.1189749 
Muldoon, J., Williams, J., & Lawrence, A. (2016). Exploring Children’s Perspectives on the Welfare Needs of Pet Animals Anthrozoös, 29 (3), 357-375 DOI: 10.1080/08927936.2016.1181359
*Not her real name; the children were given pseudonyms.

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