The benefits of pets for children

A review of the literature concludes that pets may have psychological benefits for children – such as better self-esteem – but more research is needed.

A girl and her dog sit together on the grass. Pets are good for children - read more about the benefits.
Photo: Africa Studio/Shutterstock

By Zazie Todd, PhD

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Lots of parents get pets because they think it will be good for their children. What does the science say? Recently, scientists conducted a review of the literature to find out.

The review, by Rebecca Purewal (University of Liverpool) et al involved searching the scientific literature from 1960 to 2016 for studies that examine the effects of pets on children’s psychological health. 22 studies were identified and analysed further.

The results show benefits in some areas, but not enough evidence to draw conclusions in other areas. The paper also considers the potential mechanisms for such effects.

The scientists write,
“This paper provides a review of the evidence on the effects of pet ownership on emotional, behavioural, cognitive, educational and social development. Overall, the evidence suggests that pet ownership, and dog ownership in particular, may benefit these outcomes for children and adolescents. However, the evidence is mixed partly due to a broad range of different methodological approaches and varying quality of studies.”
The scientists used quite broad criteria in selecting the studies for their review. The 22 studies they looked at include two that have been covered on Companion Animal Psychology: Geerdts et al on pets and children’s understanding of biological concepts, and Rhoades et al on the effects of pets on the mental health of homeless youth.

First, the good news. Purewal et al found evidence that pets may be good for children’s emotional health, especially in terms of better self-esteem and reduced loneliness. There also seemed to be benefits in terms of being better able to take another person’s perspective, and for intellectual development.

They also found social benefits – bigger social networks, better social competence, and more social play. (Interestingly, pets have also been found to increase social networks for adults).

However, they did not really find evidence for improvements in depression and anxiety, and there was not enough evidence to come to any conclusions about behaviour development.

The paper describes several potential mechanisms by which pets might benefit children. The effects of the hormone oxytocin may lead to reduced stress, and pets may provide social support. Pets may help to meet children’s needs for a secure attachment, and this could be especially important in cases where a child has poor attachment to their parents. Indeed, it is possible that attachment to pets may be more important than simply owning a pet.

A boy holds his Yorkshire Terrier in his arms. Research shows pets are good for children.
Photo: zagorodnaya/Shutterstock

The authors provide illustrations of how effects might occur for each of the domains where an effect was found. For example, improved educational outcomes may be due to better social support and reduced stress, which in turn may cause better executive functioning which will improve learning. Interactions with the pet (such as having conversations with the pet) may also lead to better language skills and social cognition.

Potential benefits of pets may also be related to the stage of a child’s development. For example, young children who are learning about social relationships may especially benefit from interactions with a pet. For self-esteem, it seems that pet ownership is of most benefit to younger children (under 6) and those over 10 years old.

The review highlights a number of problems with the available evidence, such as small sample sizes,  only collecting data at one time-point (therefore not able to assess potential effects over time), and sometimes classifying children as non-pet owners at a particular time when they may have previously had a pet that is now deceased.

Also, there are differences in the kinds of pets studied, and although it appears that dogs had the greatest potential, in some cases other pets (that were not dogs or cats) were not included as pets in the research. So more research is needed to understand the relationship children have with different kinds of pets, and whether this means some pets are more likely to be beneficial than others.

The authors also highlight potential confounding variables. For example, there might be differences in the kind of parent who acquires a pet compared to those who don’t, and it’s possible this could account for some of the effects.

As well as summarizing the literature, the article highlights the need for better quality evidence on the possible benefits of pets. While the potential risks of pets are outside the scope of the paper, they are mentioned. The most obvious might be the risk of dog bites, which young children are especially vulnerable to, but there are also risks of allergies, acquiring an infection from a pet, and of grief on the loss of pet.

That's why it's so helpful to know that research finds dogs and cats may benefit children in some aspects, such as improved self-esteem and bigger social networks. The review highlights priorities for future research, and shows that improving the quality of research in this field is essential. Hopefully it will be a catalyst for better-designed and longitudinal studies in this area.

The paper is open access so you can read it in full. You can also follow one of the authors of the study, Dr. Carri Westgarth, on twitter.

If you like this post, you might like my book Wag: The Science of Making Your Dog Happy. Modern Dog calls it “The must-have guide to improving your dog’s life.” 

If you're a cat person, you might like to check out my book Purr: The Science of Making Your Cat Happy. Dr. Sarah Ellis says, "Purr is definitely a book your cat would want you to read!"

How do you think pets might help children?

You might also like: Reading to dogs may improve literacy and what pets do children have and which do they prefer?

You may also read this post in Chinese, courtesy of our friends at Bambiland Pet Photography and Dog Training.

Purewal, R., Christley, R., Kordas, K., Joinson, C., Meints, K., Gee, N., & Westgarth, C. (2017). Companion Animals and Child/Adolescent Development: A Systematic Review of the Evidence International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 14 (3) DOI: 

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