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Children with family pets reap benefits

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girl on couch patting dog

Photographer: Andrew Branch

Buster was our family bulldog. He had a permanent scowl. Chewed tennis balls to the point where we stockpiled Big W 12-packs in the garage.

Drooled large pools of slobber on the tiles. And passed wind so hideously he could clear a room. 

If anyone else had as many bad habits as Buster there’s no way they’d be welcome. But Buster was loved. In fact it was a badge of honour among siblings if Buster chose your bed to sleep on or begged you to throw his tennis ball, “See! Buster loves me more!”.

Sometimes you’d have a friend over to play who didn’t have a pet and watch them back away as Buster approached them with a drool-soaked tennis ball in his lop-sided jowls. It was a love born not of beauty but of shared history. Of stolen sausages at family barbecues, chewed shoes, confided secrets, tearful moments, happy hugs, exhausting races, vaccinations (his and ours), long drives, short drives, trips to the beach, bath time (his and ours), and sleeping happily flopped together.

Of course a time came when Buster ambled rather than ran and he’d even let a tennis ball roll past him without taking up the chase. Until finally the inevitable happened. One day we came home from school and there wasn’t any Buster. It was hard but we got through it as a family, realising it was part of learning about life and death. 

And soon there was a new face in our house. The family agreed that Buster could not be replaced so we did what I know some of you will point a finger and say is unthinkable. We became cat people. 

I know you’re already preparing your ‘what about the native wildlife arguments’ but I assure you we were responsible cat people. Tigger was an enormous ball of fluff who never left our house. She was beautiful but lacked any kind of street smarts and for that reason (and yes, the preservation of our native wildlife) she lived indoors with every manner of cat toy you can imagine. 

Now while you dog lovers are still contemplating toilet-papering our front yard in a midnight raid as pay back for the treachery, there is something over which I hope we can bond. Pet ownership. Whether it’s furred or feathered or finned it seems there are physical and psychological advantages to growing up with a pet. 

Animal Medicines Australia in their 2016 study on Pet Ownership found that there has been a rise in the “fur baby”. Since the last survey in 2013, dogs and cats have become more than mere companions.

The survey shows that the relationship between humans and pets have become closer with a significant lift in the proportion of owners who see their pets as important members of the family rather than mere companions.

According to the survey there are more than 24 million pets in Australia today. At 62%, Australia continues to have one of the highest household rates of pet ownership in the world.  

Almost two in five households have dogs (38%) while nearly three in ten households have cats (29%). More than one in ten households also keep fish (12%). A similar proportion of households keep birds (12%). For the first time in 2016, this study also examined small mammals and reptiles as pets, and found similar rates of ownership of each (both 3%). 

Australians are clearly passionate about their pets and many happy childhood memories hinge on feline friendships and canine companionship. 

Using data from Growing Up in Australia: The Longitudinal Study of Australian Children Dr Hayley Christian from The University of Western Australia is working with colleagues at the Telethon Kids Institute to examine whether pet ownership is related to positive social and emotional developmental outcomes in children.

In Australia, growing up with a pet in the household is normal for many kids, with half of all households with young children owning a dog, and three-quarters owning some type of pet. 

The benefits of pets

Dr Christian says the research is looking at whether having a pet in the household is good for overall child development.

“There are a whole lot of benefits from children having pets. Some relate to social and emotional development, self-esteem, learning experiences, and others to physical and cognitive benefits,” Dr Christian says.

“We can see that children that have a family dog do about two hours more physical activity per week. We have done research to show that pet play is also an important way for kids to be active. A dog in the household provides increased opportunities for children to actively play each day.

“Kids that are active have better physical health in terms of fitness, weight status and bone development. Physically active kids also have improved mental health and do better academically and socially. 

“Those who are more active, when they come inside to do an activity have burnt off their energy, so are able to pay attention and therefore do better. 

“Pets also have a role to play in the social and emotional development of children and the key thing is they can improve self-esteem, children’s empathy for others and their sense of responsibility. 

“Children involved in taking care of a pet learn about life and death cycles and it helps children’s nurturing skills through caring for their pet.

“Pets can help develop a child’s self confidence and trust, and in older children they can become a confidante. When you are having tricky times

I’ve had my children use them as a listening ear to share something great or something they are trying to work through.”

Dr Christian also says this is all a natural part of human nature with the “biophilia hypothesis” suggesting humans seek out and need contact with nature. 

“The biophilia hypothesis says humans have an innate need to be in contact with the natural world. So we should go outside and walk around the park, view the ocean and pat a dog. By having a family pet you always have that contact with nature. It’s an opportunity to slow down and enjoy life,” she says.

Choosing an appropriate pet

Choosing an appropriate pet is an important decision and Dr Christian suggests consulting with your local vet and using a reputable online tool to assist your choice.

“We often talk about dogs because they provide active play and physical activity but there are other pets that provide developmental benefits for all ages. It’s important to think about how the pet fits in with your lifestyle and the ages of your children,” Dr Christian says.

“It also isn’t about pedigreed animals. There are beautiful dogs in shelters. The RSPCA has a fantastic website with helpful information for selecting a dog or cat. The main thing with rescue sites is that they generally say whether the dog is ok with children or suitable for a home with other pets.

Whether you decide you are a dog or a cat person – or perhaps a bit of both – is of course, entirely up to you.

“The important thing is to do your homework. You have a pet for a long time. They are a family member so choose one that is suitable for your family and lifestyle. They are a significant financial commitment, but of course the return is there in terms of all the benefits and unconditional love.”

Dr Christian says pets teach young children in the two to five years age group many things, but they are not ready for responsibilities when it comes to pets except under parental supervision.

“Never leave your child unsupervised with a pet. Young children are still learning so many things. Teaching them from an early age to read dog and cat body signs is important. Also, how to be gentle and how to interact with dogs in public including how to greet them.

“Most of the accidents between pets and young children occurs in the home or around known animals.  Certainly the benefits of having pets in our lives far outweighs the risks, but what’s critical is that there is always parental supervision.”

What the research says

A numbers of studies have looked into the relationship between pets and companion animals and their influence on children’s health and development. Pets are believed to facilitate increased levels of exercise1 and assist childhood social and emotional development.

A review of the evidence of potential associations between pet ownership and emotional; behavioural; cognitive; educational and social development in children and adolescents found children with pets tend to have greater self-esteem, less loneliness, and enhanced social skills2.

Other results include:

  • Human-Animal Interactions research shows companion animals have the potential to promote healthy emotional development in children in many ways, and that these interactions between people and animals may affect the physical and psychological health and well-being of both people and their pets3.  
  • There is growing evidence that children turn to their pets for comfort, reassurance and emotional support when feeling anger, sadness, or happiness4
  • Although psychological theories of attachment concentrate on attachment between humans, research has demonstrated that children display attachment behaviours towards their pets. Because companion animals both give and receive affection, they can contribute to attachment needs, so the importance of bonds that children and adolescents form with animals should not be overlooked5

1 Christian, H, Westgarth, C, Della Vedova, D, 2016. Understanding the relationship between dog ownership and children's physical activity and sedentary behavior. In: Jalongo, MR, Brewer, H (Eds), Physical Activity and Health Promotion in the Early Years: Effective Strategies for Early Childhood Educators. Springer. 

Christian, H, Villanueva, K, Klinker, C, Knuiman, M, Divitini, M, Giles-Corti, B, 2016. The effect of siblings and family dog ownership on children’s independent mobility to neighbourhood destinations. Australian & New Zealand Journal of Public Health. 40 (4), 316-318.

Christian, H, Trapp, G, Villanueva, K, Zubrick, S, Koekemoer, R, Giles-Corti, B. 2014. Dog walking is associated with more outdoor play and independent mobility for children. Preventive Medicine, 67, 259-263

Christian, H, Trapp, G, Lauritsen, C, Wright, K, Giles-Corti, B, 2012. Understanding the relationship between dog ownership and children's physical activity and sedentary behaviour. Pediatric Obesity. 8 (5), 392-403.

2 Purewal, R.; Christley, R.; Kordas, K.; Joinson, C.; Meints, K.; Gee, N.; Westgarth, C. Companion Animals and Child/Adolescent Development: A Systematic Review of the Evidence. Int. J. Environ. Res. Public Health 2017, 14, 234.

3 Esposito, L.; McCune, S.; Griffin, J.A.; Maholmes, V. Directions in human–animal interaction research: Child development, health, and therapeutic interventions. Child Development Perspectives 2011, 5, 205-211.

4 Melson, G.F.; Schwarz, R. In Pets as social supports for families of young children, annual meeting of the Delta Society, New York, 1994.

Covert, A.M.; Whiren, A.P.; Keith, J.; Nelson, C. Pets, early adolescents, and families. Marriage & Family Review 1985, 8, 95-108.

McNicholas, J.; Collis, G.M. Children's representations of pets in their social networks. Child: Care, Health & Development 2001, 27, 279-294.

Bryant, B.K. The richness of the child-pet relationship: A consideration of both benefits and costs of pets to children. Anthrozoƶs 1990, 3, 253-261.

5 Melson, G.F. Child development and the human-companion animal bond. American Behavioral Scientist 2003, 47, 31-39.
Melson, G.F.; Peet, S.; Sparks, C. Children's attachment to their pets: Links to socio-emotional development. Children's Environments Quarterly 1991, 55-65.