Study finds children value companionship of pets more than their siblings

Lisa Neff, Staff writer

Children get more satisfaction from relationships with their pets than with their brothers or sisters, according to a University of Cambridge study.

Children also appear to get along better with their animal companions than with siblings.

The research adds to increasing evidence that household pets may have a major influence on child development and could have a positive impact on children’s social skills and emotional well-being.

“Anyone who has loved a childhood pet knows that we turn to them for companionship and disclosure, just like relationships between people,” said lead researcher Matt Cassells. “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.”

Researchers surveyed children from 77 families with one or more pets of any type and more than one child at home. Children reported strong relationships with their pets relative to their siblings, with lower levels of conflict and greater satisfaction in owners of dogs than other kinds of pets.

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

“Evidence continues to grow showing that pets have positive benefits on human health and community cohesion,” said Nancy Gee, a co-author of the study and researcher at the Waltham Centre for Pet Nutrition. “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 research also raised questions about prior research showing boys report stronger relationships with their pets than girls.

“We actually found the opposite,” Cassels said. “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.”

The study, published in the Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology, was conducted in collaboration with the Waltham Centre for Pet Nutrition, part of Mars Petcare and co-funded by the Economic and Social Research Council as part of a larger study, led by Claire Hughes at the University of Cambridge Centre for Family Research.