Children and Pets
Ownership of pet animals in American families is widespread, with more than half of homes hosting a dog, cat, or other animal. The isolation at home of many people during the COVID-19 pandemic led many families to decide it was time to get a pet. The increased demand for pets has made it difficult to get a “pandemic puppy” in some places.
It is widely assumed that pets are beneficial for children and that children who live with a dog or cat in their home have better mental and physical health outcomes than children without such a pet. However, research on children and pets reveals a more complicated picture. Many considerations, including negative ones, deserve attention before embarking on pet ownership in a family with a child or children.
Benefits for Children
Observers are impressed with the ability of dogs, in particular, to form bonds with human beings and provide the benefits of love and companionship.1Taking care of a dog or a cat can provide a sense of purpose and a feeling of validation and comfort when you wake up or when you come home, and there's a pet who is happy to see you. The emotional attachment with a pet may bring the physical benefit of reduced stress. Caring for a pet may also increase physical activity when playing with the animal or taking it for a walk.
According to the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (AACAP), there are many advantages of pet ownership:2
Other physical and emotional needs fulfilled by pet ownership include:
One study considered the possible benefits of pet dogs for children in four realms:3
The study found no difference between children with and children without a pet dog in body weight, physical activity, or screen time. Having a pet dog in the home was associated with a decreased probability of childhood anxiety. However, additional studies were needed to establish whether the relationship was causal.
A systematic review of 22 studies considered the potential associations between pet ownership and children's emotional, behavioral, cognitive, educational, and social developmental outcomes.4 The review found evidence for an association between pet ownership and a wide range of emotional health benefits from childhood pet ownership, particularly for self-esteem and loneliness. The findings regarding childhood anxiety and depression were inconclusive.
The 22 studies also showed evidence of an association between pet ownership and educational and cognitive benefits, for example, in perspective-taking abilities and intellectual development. Evidence on behavioral development was unclear due to a lack of high-quality research. The studies on pet ownership and social development provided evidence for an association with increased social competence, social networks, social interaction, and social play behavior.
The authors of the study cautioned that overall, research on pet ownership and the significance of children’s bonds with companion animals has been underexplored; there is a shortage of high-quality and longitudinal studies in all outcomes, and prospective studies that control for a wide range of confounders are required.
The importance of this caution is illustrated by the findings of a RAND study that found that children living with pets were generally better off than children who did not have a pet.5Children raised in families with pets were reported by their parents to:
The pattern of generally better physical and mental health among pet-owning kids was true for children living with cats and with dogs. But according to the study, the conclusion that pets are good for kids turned out to be wrong.
In short, children in homes with dogs or cats were wealthier and had a host of advantageous socioeconomic factors on their side. The RAND researchers adjusted for 20 demographic and socioeconomic differences between households with and without pets using sophisticated statistical regression techniques. They found that demographic and socioeconomic advantages were the real explanation for the apparent relationship between pet ownership and improved health and well-being in children.
The study concluded that virtually all differences between pet-owning and non-pet-owning children disappeared when factors such as race, homeownership, parental health, and wealth were taken into account.
Drawbacks of pets for children
Although most children are gentle and appropriate with pets, some may be overly rough or even abusive. If such behavior persists, it may be a sign of significant emotional problems. Any child who abuses, tortures, or kills animals should be referred to a child and adolescent psychiatrist for a comprehensive evaluation.
Taking care of a pet can help children develop social skills. However, certain guidelines apply:
It's not always easy caring for pets, and sometimes having them in the home poses health hazards for small children. A pet can get underfoot or a large dog could jump up and knock over a child.
Pets can sometimes carry harmful germs that can make us sick even when the pet appears healthy.6 Animal feces carry a variety of bacteria and parasites that can be transferred to humans. People with compromised immune systems are especially vulnerable. Households with children five years of age and younger should not have pet reptiles (turtles, lizards, snakes), amphibians (frogs, toads), or backyard poultry because of the risk of serious illness from harmful germs spread between these animals and young children. Dogs and cats can also cause allergic reactions in some pet owners.
Risk of bereavement
In a UK-based prospective study, children were characterized based on their exposure to pet ownership and pet death from birth to age seven. Psychopathology symptoms at age eight were higher among children who had loved a pet with loss compared to those who had loved a pet without a loss.
The study suggests that pet death may be traumatic for children and associated with subsequent mental health difficulties. The strong emotional attachment of youngsters to pets might result in measurable psychological distress that can serve as an indicator of depression in children and adolescents for as long as three years or more after the loss of a beloved pet.
“One of the first major losses a child will encounter is likely to be the death of a pet, and the impact can be traumatic, especially when that pet feels like a member of the family,” said lead author of the study Katherine Crawford, “We found this experience of pet death is often associated with elevated mental health symptoms in children, and that parents and physicians need to recognize and take those symptoms seriously, not simply brush them off.”
The bonds that children form with pets can resemble secure human relationships in terms of providing affection, protection, and reassurance. Previous studies have shown that children often turn to pets for comfort and to voice their fears and emotional experiences. While the increased empathy, self-esteem, and social competence that often flow from this interaction are clearly beneficial, the downside is the exposure of children to the death of a pet which, the study found, occurs with 63 percent of children with pets during their first seven years of life.
The study stressed the importance of parents, caregivers, and pediatricians recognizing and taking seriously the short- and long-term psychological reactions of children to the death of a pet — reactions that can mimic a child's response to the loss of other important family members.
Other studies have also identified the potential for distress stemming from pet death or pet rejection, unfair grief, dissatisfaction with pet's needs, worry about pet safety, “getting into trouble,” and distress at not being allowed to care for pet needs.8
The cost of pet ownership
Ongoing expenses for food and health care average about $1000, but end of life care can cost thousands of dollars.
Deciding on a pet and choosing an appropriate pet
Why do I want to adopt a pet?
Do I have time for a pet?
Am I able to have a pet where I currently live and am I planning to move?
Is my living space adequate for an animal companion?
Am I ready to make a long-term commitment?
What is the right pet for me?
Am I willing to train an animal companion?
Is your family/household ready for a pet?
For many kids, the family pet is their best friend – a companion who not only provides unconditional love, but who also teaches them about friendship, responsibility, loyalty, and empathy. Don’t just consider cats and dogs: rabbits, hamsters, guinea pigs, small birds, and fish can make great family pets. These animals may be smaller than a cat or dog, but they require just as much attention and care.
While a family pet offers children a wonderful opportunity to learn about caring and responsibility, regular pet-care duties need to be carefully supervised by an adult. A child should never be solely responsible for a pet. Also, keep in mind that your child's life and interests will change over the next ten to 15 years. The ultimate responsibility for a pet's care and safety is that of the adults in the household. As soon as you bring a pet into your household, set up and enforce rules regarding proper pet care. For example, tell your children not to pull the animal's tail, ears, or other body parts, and insist that they never tease, hit, or chase the pet. Teach children how to properly pick up, hold, and pet the animal. These simple lessons are essential to helping kids become responsible caretakers. Ultimately, your children will learn how to treat animals–and people–by watching how you treat your pet.
How much time do I spend at home on an average day?
Will this pet be a companion to another pet?
Do I want a pet that will participate with me in outdoor activities?
Do I want a “lap-pet” that will be physically affectionate and cuddly?
How large is “too large” for my lifestyle?
Many large dogs are surrendered to animal shelters because they were cute, little, fluffy puppies one week and big, clumsy, enthusiastic teenagers the next. It takes time to teach any dog basic manners, like not to pull on the leash, not to jump on people and not to play too roughly, and even more time and patience with a puppy.
Does the whole family/household want a pet?
1Health benefits and risks of pet ownership Harvard Health Letter. https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/the-health-benefits-and-risks-of-pet-ownership
2Pets and Children. Facts for Families. The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (AACAP) https://www.aacap.org/aacap/families_and_youth/facts
3 Gadomski AM, Scribani MB, Krupa N, Jenkins P, Nagykaldi Z, Olson AL. Pet Dogs and Children’s Health: Opportunities for Chronic Disease Prevention? Prev Chronic Dis 2015;12:150204. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.5888/pcd12.150204.
4 Purewal R, Christley R, Kordas K, Joinson C, Meints K, Gee N, Westgarth C. Companion Animals and Child/Adolescent Development: A Systematic Review of the Evidence. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health. 2017; 14(3):234. https://doi.org/10.3390/ijerph14030234
5Purewal R, Christley R, Kordas K, Joinson C, Meints K, Gee N, Westgarth C. Companion Animals and Child/Adolescent Development: A Systematic Review of the Evidence. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health. 2017; 14(3):234. https://doi.org/10.3390/ijerph14030234
6 About Pets and People. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention , National Center for Emerging and Zoonotic Infectious Diseases (CDC). April 15, 2019. https://www.cdc.gov/healthypets/health-benefits/index.html
7Crawford, K.M., Zhu, Y., Davis, K.A. et al. The mental health effects of pet death during childhood: is it better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all?. Eur Child Adolesc Psychiatry (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00787-020-01594-58Brenda K. Bryant (1990) The Richness of the Child-Pet Relationship: A Consideration of Both Benefits and Costs of Pets to Children, Anthrozoös, 3:4, 253-261, DOI: 10.2752/089279390787057469
9San Francisco Animal Care and Control. https://www.sfanimalcare.org/the-right-pet/