Kids like their pets more than their family, study finds

Children’s relationships with their pets are more fulfilling than those with their siblings, a new study has found.

The University of Cambridge research even suggested that children may feel closer to their pets than they do to siblings.

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

“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.”

cat and dog on bed

The family pet could be a great boon to your family’s emotional health. (Credit: Andrew Branch/Unsplash)

The importance of pets to human well-being

The study, published in the Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology and conducted in collaboration with the WALTHAM Centre for Pet Nutrition, asked 12-year-old children from 77 families about their connections to their pets.

Overall, the children said they had stronger relationships with their pets compared to with their siblings, with dogs providing the greatest satisfaction.

Although in their responses some children may overlook the nuanced differences between relationships with animals and family members (and many would rarely be expected to publicly admit to loving their brother or sister in any context), the study does add to growing research about the important of pets in human well-being. In this case in the emotional and social development in children.

“Evidence continues to grow showing that pets have positive benefits on human health and community cohesion,” said 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.”

Pets are good listeners

Speaking about the differences between genders, Cassels noted that: “While previous research has often found that boys report stronger relationships with their pets than girls do, we actually found the opposite. While boys and girls were equally satisfied with their pets, girls reported more disclosure, companionship, and conflict with their pet than did boys.”

One important element of the importance of pets in kids’ lives may simply be that they are seen as being good listeners.

”Even though pets may not fully understand or respond verbally, the level of disclosure to pets was no less than to siblings,” explained Cassels. “The fact that pets cannot understand or talk back may even be a benefit as it means they are completely non-judgemental.


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