Childhood relationships with pets may be less conflicting and more satisfying than sibling relationships, researchers suggest.
Study leader William T. Cassels, of the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom, and colleagues recently reported their findings in the Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology.
America is a nation of pet lovers. According to The Humane Society of the United States, around 66.5 million households in the U.S. own at least one pet, with dogs and cats being the most popular animals.
For many people, a pet is a considered a significant part of the family, often providing unconditional loyalty and companionship. Furthermore, studies have shown that pets can have a positive effect on mental health, helping to alleviate stress, anxiety, and depression.
According to Cassels and team, however, the majority of studies investigating pet-human relationships and their psychological impact have been conducted in adults. For their study, the researchers wanted to gain a better understanding of children's relationships with pets.
''Anyone who has loved a childhood pet knows that we turn to them for companionship and disclosure, just like relationships between people," says 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."
Pets vs. siblings
The researchers came to their findings by surveying 77 children, aged 12, who had at least one sibling and one family pet.
The team used the Network of Relationships Inventory (NRI) to measure the relationship quality between the children and their siblings, as well as between the children and their family pets.
The NRI is a 30-item survey that assesses the presence of positive and negative features in relationships, including conflict, companionship, and emotional support.
Children reported having less conflict with their pets than with their siblings, the findings revealed, and they also reported greater satisfaction from the relationship with their pets.
"Even though pets may not fully understand or respond verbally, the level of disclosure to pets was no less than to siblings," says Cassels. "The fact that pets cannot understand or talk back may even be a benefit as it means they are completely nonjudgmental."
Girls have stronger relationships with pets than boys do
Contrary to previous studies, the team also found that girls have stronger relationships with their pets than boys do.
"While boys and girls were equally satisfied with their pets, girls reported more disclosure, companionship, and conflict with their pet than did boys, perhaps indicating that girls may interact with their pets in more nuanced ways," notes Cassels.
Companionship and satisfaction were greatest between children and dogs, compared with children who had other animals as family pets.
While further studies are needed to fully understand the relationships between children and pets, the researchers believe that their study has provided some insight.
"Evidence continues to grow showing that pets have positive benefits on human health and community cohesion.
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."
Study co-author Dr. Nancy Gee, WALTHAM Centre for Pet Nutrition, U.K.