Over 90% of pet owners agree that pets are valued family members. According to the Pet Food Manufacturing Association a staggering 13 million (46%) of British households own a pet. There are 9 million dogs and 8 million cats and a whopping 20-25 million fish kept in tanks! Popular children’s pets include rabbits (1 million) guinea pigs (half a million) and hamsters (400,000). But are pets good for children and should families consider adding a non-human member?
Reasons why parents/carers get pets
The most common reasons families acquire a pet are:
- To help nurture caring skills in children and a sense of responsibility
- For companionship, particularly for an only child
- To enable development of empathy and respect for life
- To generate opportunities for learning about loss and grief when a pet dies
- Because parents/carers had pets when they were growing up
But taking on the responsibility for an additional family member is never an easy decision and ultimate caring responsibility for pets lies with adults in the family and not children.
So what should a family consider before getting a pet?
- The reason why they want the pet in the first place: non-human animals may be related to as “people” but they have very different, species-specific needs including spending time alone away from socialising with the family and playing with children
- The commitment of keeping a pet: this is multi-layered and includes time; financial and longevity, some pets may live for 16 years or more, considerations such as who will look after the pet when children have left home to go to university always need to be factored into decision making
- Considering the welfare needs of the preferred pet: whilst iguanas and other exotic animals may seem appealing they have complex needs that involve considerable and on-going effort and knowledge; exotic species typically are not ideal as pets because of this. Thinking about the social needs for pets such as dogs is of paramount importance as having someone around during the day is essential.
- Incorporating a new family member involves the whole family: it will impact on everyone in the family system and as such there needs to be a conversation as a family about what is possible and practical, putting animal welfare first.
- Consideration of exercise requirements and other special care needs
- Thinking about allergies and sensitivities family members may have: to fur, feathers and sometimes saliva or skin scales.
- Researching pet care needs on the internet and visiting a local vet for advice on pet selection can be really helpful in making the right choice – which sometimes is not to have a pet.
There can be many benefits to children of having a pet
Benefits to children of having a pet in the family
So having taken all the vital steps in deciding as a family if you want a pet what are the actual known benefits for children and child development of pet ownership?
Preventing allergies and developing healthy immune systems
Research in the UK and USA supports that children who live with cats and dogs are less likely to develop allergies to animals in later life, but only if the pet is in the same house while the child is a baby and/or toddler. Compared with babies born into a cat-free home, babies growing up in a home with cats are roughly half as likely to become allergic to them as teenagers. Researchers suspect that very early exposure to cat allergens and bacteria strengthens the human immune system, accustoms the body to allergens and helps children develop natural immunity. These findings support the so called “dirty hypothesis” i.e. too much cleanliness can actually weaken human immune systems!
One study in the UK found that children who have pets at home have less time off school sick. This is an interesting finding given that a frequent reason for families relinquishing pets to animal welfare charities for re-homing is allergies and fear of zoonoses (diseases that can be passed from non-human animals to people).
Having a pet encourage opportunities for exercise
Play and exercise
Pets can promote opportunities for play and exercise, in a current culture where childhood obesity and inertia sitting in front of computer games are major health concerns, this could be a real bonus. Walking, running and throwing a ball for a family dog provide opportunities to get away from the prevalent sedentary lifestyle many UK children are slipping into. Fine motor skills can be developed by young children helping groom pets and scooping food, pouring water into dishes. Of course parent/carer supervision is a major consideration and necessity depending on the age and developmental stage of an individual child. Adult supervision is also very important in ensuring a pet’s safety.
Pets can be marvellous social facilitators for children. Children are more likely to approach and engage with other children when they are playing with a pet. In this way pets can be a bridge between a less socially outgoing child and other potential friends and play mates. Of course pets can be a source of friendship for children and social interaction, in particular an only child. Parent/carers teaching and modelling caring skills to a child can also build a sense of responsibility and actively develop nurturing skills. Pets can be incredible vehicles for learning, not least through lessons of love.
Having a pet to care for can help emotional development
Enhancing emotional development
Emotional development can be enhanced by having a pet in the home: e.g. self-esteem through caring responsibilities. The responsibility a child has for their pet though must be age appropriate. At age 3 years a child can help an adult fill food bowls. By 5 years he or she can take on some basic grooming tasks under adult supervision as well as start helping clean the pet’s living area. As a child moves into primary school they can become involved in walking a dog with an adult. Keeping pet care responsibility age and developmentally appropriate is not only necessary for the safety and welfare of the pet, but the child as well, both physically and emotionally.
Some children as they grow up may develop a particular interest in a species or breed, and reading about them and their welfare needs can be motivating for a child to learn! Similarly going to dog behaviour classes can be fun and a source of learning. Bringing an older child to veterinary consults and encouraging them to ask questions about their pet’s treatment and care can be another way of creating valuable learning opportunities.
Children and pets can develop deep bonds
Pets as therapy!
Children can develop very deep bonds with family pets, which can sometimes provide a variety of functions such as comfort, friendship and soothing. Relationships with pets are very pure and non-judgemental making some children more likely to trust and confide in a pet than a human family member. For looked after children who are in foster care or adopted, pets may function as powerful attachment beings as these children may not have experienced unconditional love and nurturing before. Building a trusting relationship with an animal can facilitate an ability to make relationships with people.
A big responsibility and family decision
Caring for a pet is a huge commitment and never a decision to be taken lightly. There may be other opportunities for contact with pets via extended family such as grandparents or friends, even visits to a local animal centre. Pets need caring for throughout their lifetime and provision during holidays. Talking about having a pet in the family is a vital first step; pet ownership is not right or possible for some families because of other commitments and life circumstances, but contact with pets either within the family unit or other situations can be very beneficial socially, emotionally, cognitively and physically for most children and provide the foundations for major life lessons such as coping with grief after a pet dies and having responsibility for another living being, as well as creating strong positive and caring relationships with non-human animals that hopefully will last a lifetime.