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 And those kids who turned to their pets for emotional support were less anxious and withdrawn than those who didn't. Yet another study described by Melson showed that kids who lived with pets scored higher on measurements of empathy.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: 10.1080/10888691.2014.864205
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Header image copyright Jason G. Goldman