A Kid’s Best Friend: Pets and the Family

“Animals are such agreeable friends – they ask no questions; they pass no criticisms.” –George Eliot

A few months ago, our family got the opportunity to foster a young pup. We lost our first family dog a couple years ago, and we’ve been talking about having a new family dog on and off for a while.

According to the 2021-2022 National Pet Owners Survey, 70% of US households own a pet (an all-time high compared to previous years). Research has found that the impact of pet ownership on kid’s self-esteem appears to be greatest for children under 6 years and over 10 years of age. Also, children ages 7 and 8 rank their pets higher than their family members, viewing them as a best friend and confidant.

It’s not surprising that having a pet during childhood influences emotional, social, cognitive, and physical development. Such as:

  • Communication – Since pets can’t use words to communicate, children learn to pick up on nonverbal cues and gestures to determine what their pet needs, wants, and how they feel. This frequent practice builds the empathy and compassion needed to understand others and their perspective.
  • Motor Skills and Play – Pets become playmates. They can participate in unstructured play, allowing your child to get active and use their imagination. Your child may try to imitate their movements, indirectly building strength and body awareness. They may engage in pretend play by dressing their pet up and playing superheroes or having them as guests at a tea party. Even walking or playing fetch encourages physical activity, and bonus: reduces screen time.
  • Sensory Processing and Integration – Pets are a new sensory experience for children. The way they smell, sound, move, or feel, animals can engage your kiddo’s sensory systems and, in turn, their arousal levels and self-regulation. For example, they will have a better understanding of touch (gentle vs. strong), sound (loud vs. quiet), and speed (fast vs. slow), concepts needed to appropriately adjust to various activities or situations.
  • Executive Function – Pet care establishes routine for kids which is helpful in boosting cognitive skills. The predictability of schedule also allows for problem solving if something is off. In addition to the obvious feeding schedule, kids can learn if a puppy does or doesn’t need to go out for a walk or why is puppy barking so early in the morning?

Other positives include:

  • Improving Health – Aside from getting a daily dose of physical activity (even cleaning a fish tank requires a decent amount of effort), pets can help reduce a child’s risk of developing certain allergies. A longitudinal study found that children who were exposed to two or more dogs/cats were less likely to develop common allergies (pet, dust-mite, ragweed, grass) than kids who had no pets in the home.
  • Providing Comfort and Emotional Support – Research show that kids regularly mentioned pets when asked who they would go to with a problem. Animals give attention, intention, compassion, and awareness; innate traits that provide a safe and trusting environment for a child to express their thoughts and emotions. That unconditional love has also been linked to decreased cortisol levels (stress hormone) and increases in dopamine (happy hormone) and oxytocin (love hormone).
  • Boosting a Sense of Self The bond that pets offer allows kids to try and explore new things without judgment, building self-confidence and gaining self-esteem necessary for autonomy and learning. 
  • Encouraging Nurturing Behavior and Responsibility – A study found that children with pets spent 10.3 minutes in caregiving while those with only younger siblings spent only 2.4 minutes within a 24-hour period. This means that pet ownership provides consistent practice to dutifully care for another living being.

“People have forgotten this truth,” the fox said. “But you mustn’t forget it. You become responsible forever for what you’ve tamed…” –Antoine de Saint-Exupery, The Little Prince

All these benefits sound well and good, but none of it will come to fruition if you (or your family) are not ready to fully commit to caring for an animal. The time, finances, and the additional responsibilities can become more of a burden, overshadowing any positive outcomes that a pet could offer. There is a reason they say that having a dog is like having an additional toddler in the house.

Here’s some considerations to determine if your family is ready to take in a pet:

Type of Pet –This part requires the most research and discussion. The type of animal you take into your home should fit into the budget, lifestyle and commitment level your family can comfortably provide. Additionally, you may need to consider your child’s developmental stage and temperament. For example, a toddler may not fully understand a cat’s boundaries until they’re scratched but will comprehend to shake the fish food container twice to feed a fish. Calm kids may prefer the “chillness” of a turtle while energetic ones can keep up with a dog. You may also need to consider a pet’s lifespan, their sleeping habits (nocturnal/diurnal), and what to do if your child loses interest (meaning the brunt of the responsibilities falls on you or your spouse). If deciding which pet is the best fit seems daunting, you can book a consultation appointment with a vet experienced in caring for the species you’re considering.

Time – What does the household schedule look like? How would a potential pet fit into the current family lifestyle? If everyone is juggling school/work, practices, and extracurriculars, perhaps an animal that requires training and attention may not be an ideal choice. Also, a survey found that 45% of pet owners say one of the biggest challenges they face are behavioral issues.

Money – Even though pets aren’t human, they still need the basic necessities to live and be happy. Food, bedding, toys, and vet visits can add up. For example, the estimated cost of caring for a dog is between $1,400-$4,300/year (not including the adoption fee or price from a reputable breeder). Or, if you are not able to be home during the day, can you afford a dog-walker or do you take your dog to daycare? Also keep in mind that vet bills for exotic animal species, regardless of how small they are, can run higher than at a normal vet.

Space – It’s not just, “Do they have space to run?”, but more like, “Do you have space available that can be dedicated to your pet?” That may be in the form of a crate, a cat tower, or a tank. You may also have to think about where to store their food, supplements, toys, and accessories in the home.

Occasion – Absolutely, DO NOT GIVE A PET AS A GIFT. As cute as it is to see a pet wrapped in a bow or a bunny in an Easter basket, getting a family pet should be a family decision. So many shelters see animals surrendered because there wasn’t enough forethought into “does this animal fit into our family.” That Instagrammable picture on Christmas Day is not worth putting undue stress on an animal. Also, do not use a new pet as a reward, bribe or bargaining chip. A pet is a family member (regardless of species) and should be regarded as one.

Training – Training may be dog-specific, but keep in mind that you are also training your child to be a responsible pet owner. I know I’m not the only one who thinks of Elmyra from Tiny Toons. Just because you love a pet doesn’t mean you are a good pet owner. Yes, pet duties are on a sliding scale based on your kid and your pet’s age. This is another factor of time, but also of your child’s temperament and maturity.

If, ultimately, getting a pet isn’t in the cards at the moment, there are other ways to spend time with animals. For instance, you could help look after a neighbor/friend’s pet while they are out of town, spend time with family and friends’ pets when at their house, or put out birdseed for the local wild birds.

Owning a pet is a huge family decision that should not be taken lightly. They are a huge commitment, both in time, money, and space. But, if the stars align, having a pet become part of your family can be very rewarding, providing many positive experiences and unconditional love for you and your kids.

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The Role Of Pet Ownership In Childhood Development
Benefits of Pets for Kids | Pathways.org
Dog Ownership Benefits Emotional Development in Young Children, Study Finds
Purewal, R., Christley, R., Kordas, K., Joinson, C., Meints, K., Gee, N., & Westgarth, C. (2017). Companion Animals and Child/Adolescent Development: A Systematic Review of the Evidence. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health14(3), 234. MDPI AG. Retrieved from http://dx.doi.org/10.3390/ijerph14030234
These Are the Best Pets for Kids at Each Age | PetMD

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