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The Thoughtful Animal

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Is It Good For Kids To Have A Pet?

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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People overwhelmingly believe that having pets is overall a good thing for children. Indeed, a 2003 paper by developmental psychologist Gail F. Melson reports that most parents say that they acquired their family pets “for the kids.” But does this pervasive belief hold up to scientific scrutiny? The new field of human-animal interaction aims to find out.

Ten years ago, when Melson reviewed the literature on child-animal relationships, she reported that interacting with animals led young children to better understand biology than their pet-less counterparts. Kindergarteners who had cared for goldfish were more accurate when responding to questions like “does a goldfish have a heart?” They also more easily transferred biological information from one species to another, inferring that baby frogs get bigger just like goldfish do. She also reports that elementary school children considered their relationships with their pets as most likely to last “no matter what” and “even if you get mad at each other,” which was not the case for their relationships with their parents and human peers. And those kids who turned to their pets for emotional support were less anxious and withdrawn than those who didn’t. Yet another study described by Melson showed that kids who lived with pets scored higher on measurements of empathy.

The intervening ten years have seen some advances, but literature on the topic is still fairly scant, at least aside from human-animal interactions in therapeutic contexts. A recent paper by researcher Megan K. Mueller of the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University adds some important new information to the discussion.

She turned to a national, longitudinal study called the “4-H Study of Positive Youth Development,” a dataset that includes information from 7000 kids from 42 states, ranging in age from fifth grade to post-high school. The sub-set of data that Mueller looked at comprised of 567 participants, all from the post-high school cohort, because that is the only set of participants who had answered questions about human-animal interactions. For the study, both pet owning and other types of animal-related activities, like horseback riding, were considered as human-animal interaction experience.

She found that adolescents who had animal experience were more likely to see themselves as important contributors to their communities, such as taking on leadership roles in organizations, or doing community service.

She also found that the higher the level of attachment between a teenager and animals, the higher they scored on measurements of emotional connectedness in general, which is not too surprising. While it’s only a correlation and causality can not be determined, Mueller says that “this finding has important implications for the notion that interactions with an animal may be a way to facilitate the emotions and social skills necessary for developing and maintaining adaptive social relationships with other humans.” It is at least plausible that children and adolescents can learn about healthy relationships from their experiences interacting with non-human animals. “If a connection exists between the skill sets required for these relationships, then it might be useful to capitalize on animal relationships as a way to promote the development of social skills,” she adds.

Mueller is aware of the limitations of her study. It’s a relatively small sample size, it can’t derive any conclusions about the causal role of animals in kids’ lives, it relies on survey data, and it’s limited to teenagers in the United States.

Another limitation is that the study was not designed to suss out any potential negative effects of animal-related experiences. Some other studies, for example, have shown that pet owners – particularly those who have extremely high attachment with their pets – have higher levels of psychological disorders, like depression and anxiety, and are more likely to suffer insomnia, than non-pet owners.

When is pet ownership beneficial? When is it harmful? How can human-animal relationships best serve both humans and animals? How can the beneficial parts be promoted while avoiding the harmful parts? These are important questions, given how little effort has been devoted to research in this area, and how ubiquitous human-animal interactions are. Indeed, “there may be no setting as significant a part of the lives of youth about which so relatively little is known,” Mueller says.

If anything, her paper is a call to action. “Methodologically-sound developmental research will afford practitioners, educators, and parents the evidence base necessary to make informed and effective choices about how to involve youth in animal-related experiences,” rather than relying on intuition and guesswork, she argues. “The potential contexts for involving youth in [human-animal interactions] are vast, and using empirical evidence to undertake prudent actions and to maximize resources will be crucial to optimizing youth and animal experiences.”

Mueller M.K. (2014). Is Human-Animal Interaction (HAI) Linked to Positive Youth Development? Initial Answers, Applied Developmental Science, 18 (1) 5-16. DOI:

Related:
When Animals Act Like People in Stories, Kids Can’t Learn

Header image copyright Jason G. Goldman

Jason G. Goldman About the Author: Dr. Jason G. Goldman received his Ph.D. in Developmental Psychology at the University of Southern California, where he studied the evolutionary and developmental origins of the mind in humans and non-human animals. Jason is also an editor at ScienceSeeker and Editor of Open Lab 2010. He lives in Los Angeles, CA. Follow on . Follow on Twitter @jgold85.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.



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  1. 1. tuned 1:45 pm 04/17/2014

    I do not believe in keeping an animal captive.
    “Nursing” an animal should be done in the least restrained way. Semi-domestication will likely end up getting it killed later.
    If someone put a leash on you and dominated you in various ways you would probably resent it. Smile to get fed at night, but resent it. Until you finally “broke”.
    I do not see how that is the right thing to teach or to do.

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  2. 2. methos1999 5:53 pm 04/17/2014

    @tuned. So are you saying you’re against pets in general? What about people who have out-door cats? In that case the cats are free to leave and never return, but frequently they do because they get free food, protection from predators, and shelter from weather.

    If you are referring to dogs, you probably should do some research on how dogs became domesticated. I can assure you a golden retriever is about as “captive” as a human child, and is probably about as helpless if let loose to roam.

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  3. 3. bailiff 7:19 pm 04/17/2014

    It takes all kinds to make the word go round!

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  4. 4. m12345 10:09 pm 04/17/2014

    Tuned

    Some people should not have pets, that is certainly true.

    But remember a real pet is the one who chooses the person. The goldfish is held captive I agree, a symbiotic state it might enjoy or might not depending on the tank.

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  5. 5. aggieequine 1:57 am 04/20/2014

    to tuned:
    animals do not think and analyze as humans do. they follow a hierarchy of dominance in any social situation, whether it be (for example) a dog between other dogs or a human. every animal will always either try to be an alpha (the boss), or have an alpha. they do not understand the concept of ownership, but only their relation with other living things. they do not see an “owner” as their owner, but as their boss, just like they would another alpha dog if they were roaming in a pack. some dogs try to dominate their owners to become alpha, which is usually met with resistance. the same scenario would be played out in a pack.
    dogs also live in the moment, and do not hold grudges or resentment. cats and horses work similarly to this. do some research and see what you find.
    and, goldfish have a memory span on 3 seconds. pretty sure they don’t care if they have an owner or not, but only enjoy food raining down on them as a surprise every time, which would make anybody happy i’m sure.

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  6. 6. 14099218 1:05 pm 04/20/2014

    If human-animal interaction can serve as a precursor to social skills development then this is a paradigm that should be further investigated. Could social skill development impact a country’s development level? For instance, in first world countries, like the USA, there is a very large pet market running into the billions of dollars annually, indicating the need that people have for owning a pet. If owning a pet leads to better social skills and emotional development, can a conclusion be made that it can lead to the overall developmental success of a country in its whole? In comparison to first world countries, in third world countries there isn’t a real ‘culture’ for owning pets and the pet-market is much lower. The people in third world countries seem much less developed in their social skills. Or could it be that the large pet market is a result of the county’s development?

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  7. 7. demiincarnate 3:24 pm 04/20/2014

    @tuned: You’re anthropomorphizing animals to a degree that doesn’t make biological sense. Have you looked at how stray dogs and cats fare compared to pet dogs and cats? Dogs and cats (and horses and farm animals) are domesticated animals – they have evolved to live together with humans, and are happiest when doing so. And you don’t have to “dominate” your pet or keep them on a leash – good pet owners don’t need to do those things except for keeping a dog on some sort of harness for their own safety (I know my dog will chase cars if I don’t have her on a harness). Keeping exotic animals captive is often inhumane, unless you can provide for the animal’s needs without disrupting it (ie keeping a small aquatic animal in a large, fully furnished tank). But you can’t generalize from your own feelings about how humans should be treated to make assumptions about how domestic animals want to be treated.

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  8. 8. hkraznodar 5:43 pm 04/21/2014

    @tuned – Typically a wild animal has a shorter and more difficult life than a domesticated animal of the same species. Animal owners must be getting something right. The fact that you seem to think that animals have minds constructed identically to humans where I don’t believe that may be why we hold differing views.

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  9. 9. Khilona 10:33 am 04/23/2014

    I have heard that there is a lot of research being done in pairing animals with children with special needs. Kids with Down Syndrome, autism, etc. Some amazing work has been done with this research. We already see how animals help in our normal lives. Police dogs and horses, rescue dogs, guide dogs. There is current research being done in the hope to use bees to locate explosives. It is a true wonder and fascination as to how these animals are so clever and emotionally attached to their owners. So many of them help kids in need. The stories of how children with low self-esteem and depression get introduced to a animal, and suddenly there is a transformation of their personality. Simply amazing….

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