In 2016, it was estimated there are 24 million pets within Australia, making pets almost as common as siblings for many Aussie kids. This sheer number of furry friends has inspired scientific investigation into how pet ownership effects the social and emotional development of children.
For many Aussie kids, having a pet is just like having a brother or sister!
Pets can provide emotional support to children
A new study conducted by the University of Cambridge surveyed 12-year-old children from a cross section of families. These children reported stronger relationships with their pets, when compared to their siblings. In fact, children with pets reported lower levels of conflict and greater levels of emotional satisfaction.
Seemingly, it's the non-verbal nature of animals that makes pet ownership particularly beneficial for children. Researchers found that a non-verbal dynamic creates a child–pet relationship that feels completely non-judgemental. Interestingly, these results were most noticeable amongst children with pet dogs, rather than other domesticated animals.
“Although children cannot verbally interact with their pets, they do gain social and development benefits from associating with animals,” says Dr Tony Tanious from House Call Doctor. “Children learn many essential social skills, such as non-judgemental companionship and empathy, by interacting with family pets.”
Children with pets demonstrate higher levels of empathy for both people and animals.
Pets reduce social isolation and improve self-esteem
According to the US National Centre for Health Research, children without siblings experience even greater benefits from pet ownership. ‘Only children’ with pets at home have demonstrated higher self-esteem, improved social participation and greater levels of empathy.
“Pets are great outlets for children who are experiencing forms of social isolation or loneliness, perhaps at school or in their living situation,” says Dr Tony, who has trained within family medicine. “Pet ownership is a form of social interaction, and this plays a crucial role in the earlier years of human development.”
Pets can reduce feelings of loneliness, by providing children with companionship and social interaction.
Pets reduce stress and improve children’s health
Another experiment measured stress indicators amongst healthy children aged 3- 6 years at two different medical clinics. A dog was present at the first clinic, and these children demonstrated lower blood pressure, steadier heart rates and less behavioural distress. In contrast, children at the second clinic experienced higher stress indicators without the support of an animal nearby.
“There is considerable research to suggest that companion animals can ease anxiety and a range of other health conditions,” says Dr Tony. “For example, children with autism or physical disabilities can develop self-esteem and a sense of responsibility, thanks to their pet.”
Pets are found not only to have a positive effect on children, but upon society as a whole. Many pet-friendly communities indicate higher rates of social cohesion and overall wellbeing. If you had a childhood pet you might agree with the children surveyed – pets are just like siblings – they’re part of our family!
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