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The benefits of fur-weather friends in childhood development

ByBen Thomas

Feb 1, 2018

A recent analysis suggests that owning a pet in childhood aids in a child’s development.

Relationships with others are a key contributor to childhood development, and researchers wanted to find out whether this influence was limited to humans, or whether pets also had a role to play.

Studies have shown that children who are not able to fulfil their attachment have a tendency to develop distrust of others, low self-esteem, and a propensity of loneliness. As pets both give and receive affection, they’re thought to contribute to attachment needs in development.

A systematic review was carried out by academics from various UK and US universities including Liverpool, Bristol, Lincoln, New York and Buffalo which found beneficial correlations between children owning pets and emotional health, particularly self-esteem and loneliness.

The team identified and analysed 22 research publications that looked into social, emotional, cognitive, education, and behavioural outcomes, and concluded that pet ownership carries with it a wide range of emotional health benefits, including perspective-taking abilities and enhanced intelligence.

Overall, the work found a clear link between pet ownership and social ability; networking, play, interaction, and overall competence.

One potential reason for this is that evidence suggests children turn to their pets for reassurance and comfort when stressed, sad, and/or angry; as a result, their pets may help the children process these emotions in a healthy manner. This is far better than not being able to release them and bottling them up.

However, the analysis wasn’t all conclusive; the investigation into how pet ownership affects depression and anxiety could not point one way or the other, and the effort to investigate whether pet ownership affects behavioural development couldn’t be completed due to lack of high quality research.

The research also didn’t investigate whether one type of animal was more helpful in development of certain characteristics than others, so the age old debate of cats vs dogs will likely continue to be waged.

However interestingly, separate research suggests that the presence of a dog in a classroom helps children perform better both academically and cognitively (go team dog!).

With approximately 46% of British households including at least one companion animal, it’s worth investigating how animals are shaping the youth.

As a result, a call for further, high quality, research into a link between these is surely merited in order to elucidate the mechanisms through which this occurs.

Image Credit: Andrew Pons via Unsplash

By Ben Thomas

PhD Student in the British Heart Foundation Centre for Cardiovascular Science, interested in all things science.

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