Kid's Best Friend: The Benefits of Having a Pet
Kids begging for a dog? Memories of your goldfish floating to the top of the fish bowl? Taking on a pet is a complicated decision. Learn about the benefits, from skills like empathy, to a reduction in anxiety.
COOPER TEAM • MAY 31ST, 2023
The hair, poop, vet visits, bills, grooming, boarding, training…it can be a lot of work to take on a pet. Man’s best friend can feel like a mom’s worst nightmare. Sure, having a family pet is hard work - but the benefits may be enough to tip the scales in your pet’s favor.
The power of pets is well documented in child development research. Studies have found that young children with dogs have fewer disagreements with peers, fewer behavioral problems, and improved prosocial behaviors. Plus, the social-emotional benefits seen early on in childhood extend well into adolescence and adulthood.
Whether it’s playing with the dog, cuddling with the cat, or feeding a goldfish, the evidence suggests that many of young children’s skills are honed and deepened by pet ownership. For example, pets can help to:
Facilitate social interactions
Decrease cortisol levels (the stress hormone) for children with anxiety or behavioral concerns
And build responsibility and regularity around disease management (in this case, diabetes)
Other skills, like empathy, compassion, and independence, can be linked to pet ownership as well. Non verbal communication (as in, your pet doesn’t talk back) paired with physical contact practices a child’s ability to feel with someone else, and connect to caring for, and receiving care from, another. Children also often confide secrets or difficult feelings to their pets, using them as neutral listeners with less complexity than humans. These feelings of unconditional love and affection from a pet, someone who loves you without judgment or lectures, helps support healthy self-esteem and confidence. Plus, some less likely outcomes - like an improvement in literacy from reading to a pet, and increased exercise and time in nature associated with walking a pet - are all further proof that pets play powerful and positive roles in children’s lives.
One other aspect of pet ownership is the opportunity for children to learn about birth, illness, and, sadly, death. Though losing a pet can be a difficult experience for children (and adults), it can provide an opportunity for children to work through their understanding of death and grief in an age appropriate way, with your guidance and support.
So… Should I rush out and buy a goldfish right now? Not necessarily. First, make sure that it is a responsibility you can take on (research shows that kids under age 10 are not generally able to provide consistent pet care - i.e. they won’t keep those promises), and a decision that is right for your family. But if you are on the fence, let the research be a reason to take the leap…or the leash.