it’s no secret that animals play a substantial role in children’s lives. Worldwide lots of children are fortunate enough to get the golden opportunity of growing up with a loyal companion. Every single kid remembers the moment when they see their pet for the first time. What a happy moment that is! That is the start of a beautiful love-friendship relationship that will have countless short and long term positive effects on both the child and the pet. But you may ask, how does owning a pet actually influence the development of children? Let's find out!
1. Physical contact between children and pets matters (a lot!)
It has been proven that from the early stages of life, children associate warmth and responsiveness with security and love. A scientific study demonstrated that emotional attachment can be built through physical contact and that it is as important for animals as it is for humans. During this study they put baby monkeys in two different cages with two sets of objects simulating 'mother' figures, one of them consisted of bare wires and had a bottle of food, the other one was made of wire covered with a soft cloth, with no food.
Do you know which mother figure the monkeys spent more time with? You guessed it! With the one with a soft cloth! Because 'contact comfort' was more important than food rewards were to form attachments. This study shows that tactile stimulation is vital for animals to grow up emotionally healthy, and so implies that because humans are closely related to monkeys, physical contact with soft items such as a pet's fur, makes children feel secure and comfortable. Why does it have this effect? Well, biology has taught us that when we feel happy, comfortable, and safe, we release a lot of different endorphins, but we will get into that on our next point.
2. The Biology behind the Child and Pet bond
As we stated on our previous point when a child plays with a pet, it is generally a comfortable situation where a child feels safe and happy, this leads to the child's body releases serotonin, dopamine and other endorphins in the nervous system (children and pets literally have good chemistry together!). These kinds of experiences are very important during early developmental periods for both the child and the pet. It also has been shown that if children cannot create a good bond with their caregiver, they might experience compensatory attachment with a pet! Some evidence also shows that children turn to their pets looking for comfort, reassurance, and emotional support when feeling anger or sadness. But that's not a surprise. Even adults look for some psychological stability with their furry friends! We will expand this idea to our next point.
3. The Psychological backup that children find in pets
It has been shown that pets show the ability to encourage better emotional health in children and minimize negative feelings, such as anxiety and depression. All these behavioral and psychological effects stem from complex chains of chemical reactions and hormones. Let's talk about the main one: oxytocin. Oxytocin is the ''love hormone'', and it’s released when there is a strong bond between a pet and a child. To show you the importance of this hormone, let's mention another process in which it takes part: lactation. During breastfeeding, both the mother’s and baby’s bodies release significant amounts of oxytocin, which is partly why the bond between a mother and her newborn is so strong. And this hormone is released upon the interaction between the child and pet too!
All these biological interactions explain the reduction of psychological stress children who are in regular contact with animals experience. On top of this, because our furry friends both give and receive love and affection, they are able to fulfill attachment needs. This is another reason for the importance of the bonds that a child in their development stage establishes with animals, and this should not be overlooked! A very important factor in youth development is self-esteem. This is especially important in adolescence and pre-adolescence. It has been said that if pets are a source of support for self-esteem, the major influence is going to be on young boys and girls while they are getting into adolescence.
The pet again plays a very important role because pre-adolescents and adolescents are in a period full of uncertainty, they are going through a lot of biological, behavioral, and mental changes, and they may need a different companion other than their parents. They need all the psychological backup they can get! Here is where pets shine again! They can boost self-esteem and minimize loneliness! Why is this important? Well, a boost in self-esteem and self-worth will result in long term benefits. Studies have shown that children who grow up with pets showed better self-esteem levels and developed into adults that are now more socially competent than children who did not grow with a pet. These self-esteem boosts are especially important for youths with depression, anxiety, and who also struggle in the academic area. This brings us to the next point!
4. A pet’s influence on academic performance!!
A child/adolescent with a pet will have a very convenient series of advantages at school just because of the strong bond with their companion animal (this is like a school hack without actually cheating!). The learning curve gets easier to surpass. A pet indirectly helps in getting better academic results. How does this occur? This can be the result of the pet indirectly stimulating the child to try to communicate with it, which conveniently provides verbal training. We have all seen that little boy trying to speak with his dog and even trying to punish it when he believes it did something wrong! This often results in the desire for children to build more vocabulary.
These are the reasons why science sees pets as informal teachers who indirectly promote learning. This actually happens because when a child feels an attachment to their pet, they show more emotional investment and therefore can learn new things with more ease.
5. The Pet Effect on Social Development
There is strong evidence that having a pet as a child can promote healthy social development. Pets are capable of motivating the development of good social interaction skills and healthy relationships. Children who interact with a companion animal develop empathy and social competence much more easily.
6. Having a pet has a positive impact on the Immune System
A lot of studies have demonstrated that pets play a major role in building up the immune system in a child's earlier life. Children who are in continuous exposure to a cat or dog in their first years of life tend to experience a much lower incidence of hay fever and asthma. There is also a reduced probability that they develop animal - associated allergies. Studies also suggest that children who are raised in a family that owns a pet tend to have fewer odds of getting sick. Pets protect children even from illnesses!
7. The long term effects of interacting with pets
From what we have reviewed up to this point, you now know that being raised with a close furry pal will have many positive effects in the long run, and most of them persist into adulthood. Adults who owned a pet when they were kids will be more likely to:
- Possess more competent social skills
- Have better language and communication abilities
- Perform better in their academic studies
- Enjoy good mental stability
In summary, there is overwhelming evidence that suggests that owning a pet has a lot of positive outcomes on a child’s psychological, cognitive, social, academic, and behavioral development. Therefore we can say that companion animals possess the latent ability to boost and contribute to healthy development in children and adolescents. However, these positive outcomes are more related to dogs and cats, because with them there is a more elevated level of interaction in comparison to other pets (but these benefits are not limited to them since all types of pets contribute to the desired outcomes we have mentioned!). Finally, we must finish by reaffirming that owning a pet in earlier stages of life boosts a variety of positive outcomes that continue into adulthood that will likely stay with the person throughout their life! Besides, who doesn't love pets?
After learning about the important roles pets play in the development of children, why not donate to help provide pets to children in need of them! Canines for Disabled Kids (CDK) is a wonderful organization which aims to raise public awareness and education about assistance dogs, they do this by traveling the country to talk to students of all grade levels, civic groups, religious groups, and businesses.
CDK also offers different ways to help educate the public about service dogs including Educational Presentations, Booth Event Participation, Americans with Disability (ADA) consulting. Members of CDK staff and volunteers travel all over the country for these opportunities. Find out more at www.caninesforkids.org.
Article by Alex Angulo