To pet, or not to pet? - The decision to welcome a pet into your home is a big one, no matter the size of your family or the species of the animal.
Work, work, work - Taking care of an animal is a big responsibility, and many parents with young children feel that they do not have the time or energy to do so.
Taking the plunge - There are many parents, however, who embrace the challenge: according to one 2018 study in the US, 63% of households with a baby under one year old had a pet.
The upside - If you ask those parents, they will likely tell you that their pet plays an important role in teaching lessons of caregiving, responsibility, and empathy to their kids.
Huge benefits - Some parents even go so far as to say that having a pet can influence their child’s social skills, physical health, and even cognitive development.
Probing deeper - So, is it true? Can having a pet in the household really boost your child’s brain? Let’s take a look at some of the research to find out.
Hard evidence - In one study of 4,000 children, conducted at the University of Western Australia, pet ownership was associated with fewer peer problems and more prosocial behavior.
Hard evidence, continued - In another study, children aged two to five with a family dog were found to be more active, spend less time on screens, and sleep more on average than those without a dog.
Coming together - A study published in 2021 married those two studies, finding that children who regularly engage in dog-related physical activity have better developmental outcomes.
Conclusions - According to Hayley Christian, associate professor at the University of Western Australia, there is a clear conclusion to be drawn.
Verbatim - "We can actually say that children having pets and interacting with them over time in early childhood does seem to cause these added benefits in terms of their social-emotional development.”
Caveat - That does not mean to say that every family should go out and get a dog today, or that every child with a dog necessarily has it better than those without.
Under pressure - The financial burden of keeping a pet, particularly one with behavioral problems or complex medical needs, can really put a strain on already busy parents.
Teens - Furthermore, there is evidence to suggest that having a pet makes no difference when it comes to the emotional well-being of teenagers (as opposed to younger kids).
Teens in the pandemic - According to a recent study, owning a dog during the Covid-19 pandemic made no difference to the mental health of teenagers in the US.
Theorizing - To quote the study’s author, Megan Mueller, "My hypothesis is that Covid was a huge stressor and there probably isn't one thing that's enough to overcome it.”
Relationship quality - The extent to which having a pet positively impacts a child also depends on the quality of the relationship between the two.
More than cohabitation - It is not just because a child and an animal live under the same roof that they will necessarily have a strong bond and positive relationship.
Quality time - Children need to spend time with their pets, in order for their relationship with the animal to influence their development.
Example - For example, children are unlikely to form a strong bond with a hamster in their sibling’s room. However, with a dog that they walk every day, the situation is different.
The influence of age - A child’s age may also influence the strength of the relationship with their pet. Research suggests that children aged between six and 10 develop stronger bonds with animals most like humans.
Young children - That is to say, they are likely to have closer relationships with cats and dogs than with more biologically far-removed species, such as birds and fish.
Older children - Older children aged between 11 and 14, however, report being just as emotionally attached to more remote species of animals, such as mice, as they are to cats and dogs.
It's a family thing - The extent of a pet’s impact on a child’s development may also depend on the family dynamic. For example, the Australian study found that children without siblings benefit more.
Surrogate sibling - This may well be because, in some ways, a pet can act as a sort of surrogate sibling for the child. Parents may give more independence to children accompanied by a pet.
Strengthening bonds - It may even be the case that pets can facilitate stronger interactions within households: research shows that pets can help strengthen the relationship between foster parents and kids.
General understanding of animals - It also seems to be the case that having a pet that they know and love helps children to gain a deeper understanding of animals in general.
General understanding of animals - To quote John Bradshaw, a researcher at the University of Bristol, "They [children] tend to learn from their pet, somehow, how to be more understanding, empathetic and responsive to animals in general.”
Getting back to nature - Finally, experts believe that having an animal running around the house can provide kids with that all-important connection to nature.
All in all - In conclusion, then, it seems that there are definitive advantages to having pets in the house, although it is of course a responsibility that is not to be taken lightly.