MedicalResearch.com Interview with:
PhD candidate, Developmental Psychiatry
University of Cambridge
MedicalResearch.com: What is the background for this study?
Response: Around 70% of UK families with young children own a pet. However, the impact of pets on children’s lives is understudied and poorly understood. Researchers in the field of Human-Animal Interaction have been working towards addressing this gap in our understanding by focusing on the role of pets in our lives. Compared to the owners of other pets, dog owners have been found to be more likely to derive a sense of safety, companionship, and security from their pets, and to perceive them as more responsive and affectionate. Factors that contribute to differences in the quality of human-animal relationships are of great interest because the magnitude of the benefits derived from these relationships is related to their quality.
Pets may be especially significant to young people, aiding them in their social and emotional development, and serving as important substitutes for human attachment figures. Children consider their relationships with their pets as among their most important, report strong emotional bonds with their pets, spontaneously list pets when asked to name close friends and providers of social support, report turning to their pets when feeling sad, identify pets more often than humans as providers of comfort, and rely on their pets as playmates and confidants.
It remains unclear how the child-pet relationship compares with child-human relationships. Several parallels exist between children’s sibling and pet relationships. This study directly compared children’s relationships with pets and siblings across several aspects of relationship quality. The study examined how children’s ratings of the quality of their relationship with their pet varied with gender and pet species (dog versus other species collectively) and compared and contrasted their ratings of their relationship with a sibling and a pet.
The researchers carried out a questionnaire study of 77, 12 year old children in 77 pet owning (range of different pets) families that had more than one child at home. 31 children (12 girls and 19 boys) reported on their relationship with their dog and 46 children (24 girls and 22 boys) reported on their relationship with a pet of a different species (cats, rabbits, chickens, guinea pigs, fish, hamsters). The study compared children’s relationships with pets and siblings across several aspects of relationship quality and how children’s ratings of the quality of their relationship with their pet varied with gender and pet species (dog versus others collectively).
MedicalResearch.com: What are the main findings?
Response: The findings of this research were that:
• Girls reported more intimate disclosure, companionship and conflict with their pets than did boys.
• Dog owners reported more satisfaction and companionship than owners of other species of pets.
• Children reported more satisfaction and less conflict with their pets than with their siblings.
MedicalResearch.com: What should readers take away from your report?
Response: The research adds to increasing evidence that children’s relationships with their pets are among their strongest and most positive. Not only do children derive more companionship from their pets than their siblings and get along with them better, but children also confide in their pets just as much as with their siblings. In this way, pets may be a valuable social resource for children and may have a positive influence on their social adjustment and emotional wellbeing. Ultimately the findings of this research may enable the field of human-animal interaction to explore further how animals can contribute to healthy child development
MedicalResearch.com: What recommendations do you have for future research as a result of this study?
Response: Now that we have demonstrated the relative importance of positivity of children’s relationships with their pets, future research should examine the extent to which the quality of child-pet relationships is associated with young people’s social and emotional wellbeing. Such findings could in turn have broad applications such as informing clinical strategies regarding best fit for animal-assisted therapy, providing insight into resilience if pets prove to be an important protective factor against the impact of adversity, or identifying risk factors or indicators of maladjustment if aspects of child-pet relationships prove to be related to psychopathology.
It would also be interesting to see how early adolescents’ other human relationships, such as with parents and peers, compare to their pet relationships. It is always of course possible that pet relationships, although perceived as important by early adolescents, may be less predictive of wellbeing than other human relationships, or may even be detrimental if they replace beneficial human relationships. Evidently, further studies involving longitudinal measures of wellbeing alongside child-pet and child-human relationships are necessary to address these issues, and we hope that the present study provides a useful starting off point to facilitate this work.
MedicalResearch.com: Is there anything else you would like to add?
Response: This study was part of a larger study, led by Prof Claire Hughes at the University of Cambridge Centre for Family Research and was funded by grants from the ESRC and the WALTHAM Foundation.
Matthew T Cassels, Naomi White, Nancy Gee, Claire Hughes. One of the family? Measuring young adolescents’ relationships with pets and siblings. Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology, 2017; 49: 12 DOI: 10.1016/j.appdev.2017.01.003
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