Children and Pets

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
Developing positive feelings about pets can contribute to a child's self-esteem and self-confidence. Positive relationships with pets can aid in the development of trusting relationships with others. A good relationship with a pet can also help in developing non-verbal communication, compassion, and empathy. Pets can serve different purposes for children:

  • They can be safe recipients of secrets and private thoughts--children often talk to their pets, like they do to their stuffed animals.
  • They provide lessons about life, including reproduction, birth, illnesses, accidents, death, and grief.
  • They can help develop responsible behavior in the children who care for them.
  • They provide a connection to nature.
  • They can teach respect for other living things.

Other physical and emotional needs fulfilled by pet ownership include:

  • Physical activity
  • Comfort contact
  • Love, loyalty, and affection
  • Experience with loss if a pet is lost or dies.

One study considered the possible benefits of pet dogs for children in four realms:3

  • Play––increasing opportunities for exploration, novel experiences, mastery, independence, and increased physical activity.
  • Companionship­­promoting self-esteem, relieving stress, providing emotional support, and acting as a confidante.
  • Caretaking––promoting a sense of responsibility and empathy, learning about the biology of animals
  • Social interactions––develop relationships, stimulate social interaction, and stimulate verbal and nonverbal communication.

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:

  • have better general health
  • be more obedient
  • be more physically active
  • be less moody
  • have fewer behavior problems
  • have fewer learning problems

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.
Homes with and without pets were different in many important ways other than the presence of an animal. For example, the researchers found that kids with pets were:

  • less likely to be on free school lunch programs
  • less likely to be from households that moved frequently
  • more likely to have parents who spoke English
  • more likely to be white rather than African-American, Hispanic, or Asian
  • more likely to have parents born in the United States
  • more likely to live in a house rather than an apartment
  • more likely to have parents who were in good health

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.
In short, the analysis showed that kids with pets are better off — but not because they have companion animals. It’s because they are likely to come from more prosperous homes and not to be members of minority groups.

Drawbacks of pets for children
Pets are part of many children's lives. Parental involvement, open discussion, and planning are necessary to help make pet ownership a positive experience for everyone. A child who learns to care for an animal, and treat it kindly and patiently, may get valuable training in learning to treat people the same way. Careless treatment of animals is unhealthy for both the pet and the child involved.

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:

  • Since very young children (under the age of 3-4 years) do not have the maturity to control their aggressive and angry impulses, they should be monitored with pets at all times.
  • Young children (under 10 years) are unable to care for a large animal, a cat or a dog, on their own.
  • Parents must oversee the pet's care even if they believe their child is old enough to care for a pet.
  • If children become lax in caring for a pet, parents may have to take over the responsibility on their own.
  • Children should be reminded in a gentle, not scolding way that animals, like people, need food, water, and exercise.
  • If a child continues to neglect a pet, a new home may have to be found for the animal.
  • Parents serve as role models. Children learn responsible pet ownership by observing their parents' behavior.

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
Evidence suggests children form deep emotional attachments to their pets. A study found that a family pet's death can trigger a sense of grief in children that is profound and prolonged and can potentially lead to subsequent mental health issues.7

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
The first-year cost of dog (or cat) ownership exceeds $1,000, according to the ASPCA.
One-time pet expenses

  • Adoption fees: Dog: $0 to $660 / Cat: $0 to $270
  • Purebred puppies: $500 to $5000
  • Food: Dog: $30-$50 / Cat: $100-$200
  • Startup supplies (bowls, bed/crate, leashes, tags, toys, etc.): $50 to $300
  • Vet and vaccinations: Dog: $50 to $300 / Cat: $100-$200
  • Preventative medical (heartworm/ticks/etc.): $50-$100
  • Spay or neuter: $20 to $300
  • Licensing: Dog: $10 to $20 / Cat: $0 to $20
  • Microchip: $50

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
According to the San Francisco Animal Care & Control (ACC), caring for a companion animal goes far beyond providing food, water, and shelter. It takes research and careful planning to bring the right pet into your home and to make sure your lifestyle is the right one for your pet. Animal Care & Control suggests answering the following questions before adopting a pet animal.9

Why do I want to adopt a pet?
Are you looking for the loyal and steady companionship that an animal can offer? Are you hoping to fill the empty place left after a pet has passed? Knowing why you're preparing to bring a pet home helps you to determine the species and breed that will fit your lifestyle. Adopting a pet because your children have been asking for a puppy or a kitten can be a mistake. Problem-free, responsible pet ownership requires children who are mature enough to properly handle and care for their new pet.

Do I have time for a pet?
Pets need attention (food, water, care, and companionship) even if you are too tired or too busy. Puppies are especially time-consuming, requiring time for training. Older pets take less time but are still a responsibility.

Can I afford a pet?
In addition to adoption or purchase fees, consider annual expenses for veterinary check-ups, vaccinations, food, pet supplies, flea control, etc. Depending upon the size, breed, diet, etc., the average cost of owning a household pet is approximately $1,000 a year.

Am I able to have a pet where I currently live and am I planning to move?
Many rental communities either don’t allow pets or have restrictions as to the type of pets they allow. Many landlords require an additional deposit if you own a pet. If you move, your choice of housing may be restricted.

Is my living space adequate for an animal companion?
Be sure to choose an animal who will thrive in your home. If you're attracted to energetic large-breed dogs but live in a small apartment, will your pooch have enough room? If you live on a noisy street, will it disturb your cat? Also, consider that many landlords don't allow pets or place restrictions on having them, like weight limits. Be sure to check out your "house rules" before adopting.

Am I ready to make a long-term commitment?
A pet is a lifelong commitment. Many cats and dogs can live anywhere from 8 to 20 years of age. Animals like horses, parrots, and tortoises can live significantly longer. When choosing a pet, think about your future life plans and goals. Will you join the military, go away to college, or need to care for an elderly relative? As you go through lifestyle changes such as moves, the birth of children, and new jobs, your animal will remain a permanent part of your life. We know lifestyles can change, and no one can foresee the future, but it is very important to consider your future plans when selecting a pet.

What is the right pet for me?
Your personality and lifestyle, along with challenges such as space restrictions and the amount of time spent at home, should be explored to determine what pet is right for your household. Research different breeds and ask shelter staffers what animals they recommend—they're experts at making perfect matches! The ASPCA provides this information to learn more about choosing the right animal companion for your lifestyle.

Am I willing to train an animal companion?
Lack of training is one of the most common reasons that adopters return pets to shelters—are you willing to solve behavior problems?  Basic training helps dogs and their owners communicate better, strengthening the relationship overall. And taking the time to understand cat behavior, especially when it involves her litter box and scratching habits, will help you avoid potential problems.

Is your family/household ready for a pet?
If your kids are still toddlers, you might consider waiting a few years before adopting, as pet ownership ideally is a team effort. Children who are mature enough can happily share pet-care duties. You may also have another pet at home who’s not yet—or may never be—ready to share his kingdom with another animal. Although many experts recommend a child be at least six years old before a pet is brought into the family, you are the best judge of your child’s maturity. At the very least, your child should exhibit self-control and understand (and obey) the word “no.” Consider introducing your child to your friends’ well-behaved pets so you can observe your child’s behavior around animals.

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?
Puppies and kittens a lot of physical interaction, training, and supervision and do not react well to being alone for a significant amount of time during the day. Most adult pets can easily adjust to your schedule as long as you give them time to learn the new house rules. If all of your household or family members are away from home for more than eight hours most days, a dog may not be the appropriate choice for your household.

Will this pet be a companion to another pet?
ACC requires that all adopted dogs meet any resident dogs before adoption to ensure a good match. We can provide behavior tips to help facilitate a smooth introduction for cats. You might want to consider adopting a pair of adult pets that are already accustomed to and attached to each other.

Do I want a pet that will participate with me in outdoor activities?
If you want a dog to take hiking and camping, to play ball or swim in the lake with, or to train to catch flying discs, you should consider a teenage or young adult dog. For major outdoor activities, a dog should be a certain size and have natural hardiness. Dogs that are involved in these types of activities must have excellent manners, and you must be willing and able to build a strong relationship with your dog, including ongoing obedience training.

Do I want a “lap-pet” that will be physically affectionate and cuddly?
Most puppies and kittens will accept some physical affection, but they don’t all grow up to be pets that like to be cuddled. This is another good example of a specific personality trait that will be easier to find in an adult animal.

How large is “too large” for my lifestyle?
If you're renting your home (or is your plan to move to a new rental), check the pet policies in your rental contract or lease – especially regarding size limitations. Puppies and kittens grow up, and believe it or not, thousands of puppies and kittens lose their homes each year because someone didn't think about what their adult size might be. If you have a specific size in mind for your ideal pet, it's not a good idea to guess. By the time cats and most dogs are six or seven months old, you can usually tell what size they'll be when they're fully grown.

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?
ACC strongly recommends making this decision together. Make sure that your family/household is united in this decision and not simply getting a pet because the children are asking for one. Involve everyone in selecting a pet, and don't try to surprise someone with a pet. It's a wonderful experience to pick out your special pet or having that special pet pick you together as a family. Your pet will reward you with unconditional love for many years to come.

Bringing a pet into a child’s life may be a rewarding experience for both the child and their family.  Studies of pets in children's lives reveal that the benefits may be less certain than conventional wisdom would suggest and that parents should be aware of the costs and responsibilities involved and the potential negative consequences for children.  In San Francisco, a city with a population of about 875,000, Animal Care & Control rescues more than 7,000 homeless, injured, orphaned, unwanted, lost, abandoned, and mistreated animals each year. Most of these animals are adopted or placed with rescue partners.  Only about 1,000 of them are lost and reunited with grateful owners. This suggests that many pet owners are not appropriately responsible for their decision to get a pet.

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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/s00787-020-01594-5

8Brenda 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/  

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