Children can become closer to pets than to siblings, study finds

Children may feel closer to their pets than to siblings, a new study from the University of Cambridge suggests.

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Researchers have found out more and more about how pets influence child development lately. A new paper from the University of Cambridge now adds to that growing body of literature showing that children gain more satisfaction from relationships with pets than those with brothers and sisters. The close quality of this bond, as well as the availability of companionship and disclosure could have a positive effect on children’s social skills and emotional health.

The paper comes as part of a larger study conducted in collaboration with the WALTHAM Centre for Pet Nutrition, co-funded by the Economic and Social Research Council, and led by Prof Claire Hughes from the Center of Family Research. The team surveyed 12 year old children from 77 different families with more than one child who owned one or more pets of any type on the quality of their relationships.

”Anyone who has loved a childhood pet knows that we turn to them for companionship and disclosure, just like relationships between people,” says lead author and Gates Cambridge Scholar at the Department of Psychiatry Matt Cassels.

“We wanted to know how strong these relationships are with pets relative to other close family ties. Ultimately this may enable us to understand how animals contribute to healthy child development”

The children reported strong ties to their siblings (no surprises there), but they reported their relationships with pets were just as strong. Dog families also reported lower overall levels of conflict and greater owner satisfaction compared to other kinds of pets.

One other surprising finding was that pets were rated on the same level of disclosure as siblings. Cassels believes this comes down to the fact that while pets can’t understand or respond to us, “they are completely non-judgmental.” Their inability to hold dialogue might even help in this respect, he adds.

The study also found that while boys and girls reported to be equally satisfied with their pets, girls reported more getting more disclosure, companionship, and conflict out of the relationship compared to boys. It goes against the grain of previous research, Cassels adds, which usually found that boys form stronger ties to pets. Girls, their results suggest, “may interact with their pets in more nuanced ways.”

Overall, the paper adds further evidence to the case of pets shaping children for the better and improving human quality of life.

“Evidence continues to grow showing that pets have positive benefits on human health and community cohesion,” says Dr Nancy Gee, Human-Animal Interaction Research Manager at WALTHAM and a co-author of the study.

“The social support that adolescents receive from pets may well support psychological well-being later in life but there is still more to learn about the long term impact of pets on children’s development.”

The full paper “One of the family? Measuring young adolescents’ relationships with pets and siblings” has been published in the Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology.