Top 10 Benefits of Having a Pet for Kids
Updated: Jul 25, 2022
How often do you hear adults say, "I wish I didn't have a pet when I was a kid." Or, "I never wanted a puppy anyway." That's right, almost never. Most people look back fondly on the family pets they had when they were children. There may have been a few bad apples, (or problem pets,) or sad feelings about the loss of a pet, but that is all a part of the pet experience. There are so many benefits of having a family pet for children, I couldn't name them all. But, I am going to list what I think are the top 10. Of course, this is all considering that parents make an educated choice on the appropriate animal for the family considering where they live, the time they have to devote, the age of the kids etc., and that adults always take all safety precautions necessary. If a pet isn't possible for your family, due to your living situation, lack of time, or a severe allergy you can still encourage animal encounters. I will list some ideas at the end of the articles.
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1. Teach Respect for All Life
Of course here I mean respect animals in terms of caring for animals and refraining from hurting them. Animals are living things who need food and shelter. They feel pain and experience emotions. But kids can also learn how to respect animals' boundaries for the good of the animal and for the human. For example, my kids have learned never to approach a dog that is not theirs and how dogs may react to strangers. They have also learned birds do not like fingers poked in their faces. On the other hand, they will not have irrational fears of harmless animals. Lessons like this can extend to wildlife as well. They can learn to respect animal habitats, keeping space etc. Even further they may develop a respect for practices and policies which will help save endangered animals.
2. Foster compassion and empathy.
Empathy is recognizing how another feels. Animals do not tell us how they feel. We have to use non verbal social cues. Practicing recognizing these cues with animals can help kids recognize non verbal cues in humans as well. In turn, when a child is considering how another feels and cares about that feeling, they are less likely to become a bully. Moreover, they will be more successful leaders. For a good resource on animal, kids and empathy check out The Empathy Connection on the humane society website.
3. Responsibility and Self Esteem
Having a pet teaches children about taking care of another. This is especially important for children who are only children or are the youngest in the family. Even children with younger siblings may be able to do more for pets than a human child. Pets often provide children with more age appropriate tasks. Of course, very young children will not be able to take full responsibility for a pet, but just having one or two jobs that they have to do everyday can be a great lesson. For example, we have a cockatiel and my 8 year old is in charge of changing his water. This teaches him about obligation - he took on the responsibility and the bird depends on him, and it teaches him about consistency - he cannot sometimes take care of the bird, but all the time. This job takes about 5 minutes and is not a burden on him. He enjoys it, and gains self confidence that he can participate in the care for the bird. For younger children, they may help with a job under supervision and still get the same benefits. For example, my now six year old (pictured below at 2 years old) would feed and water the potbelly pig at my parents house when he would come over. He would be very proud of himself, and now my 3 year old loves to do the same! My 3 year old even has a "job" taking care of the bird. In the morning, he "wakes" him up by removing his cage cover.
4. Life Lessons
Unfortunately pets do not live forever. If you get a pet when a child is young, it is likely the pet may die sometime before that child is a teenager. Dealing with the loss of a pet can be a good lesson on mortality and grief before they have to experience it with a human. Our first encounter with the death of animal was fish. It was a life lesson and the kids were a little sad but they learned a lot without being terribly upset in this first go-round. Fortunately, our larger animals they have had since birth are all still healthy. Your pet may also reproduce, and that can be a chance to teach about that. My kids haven't had this experience yet, but I got to experience newborn kittens twice as a kid! Learning how to handle newborn animals is also enriching! Finding loving homes is also a part of the education.
5. A source of comfort
This one is really a no-brainer. Have you ever had a warm little puppy in your bed? A cat curled up in your lap? A bird on your shoulder? Some people (not me!) even find comfort in snakes. Gail F. Melson, PhD, professor emeritus of developmental studies at Purdue University, in Indiana wrote a book called, Why the Wild Things Are: Animals in the Lives of Children. It is on my to-read list after recently reading an article that said, Dr. Melson asked "a group of 5-year-olds...what they did when they felt sad, angry, afraid, or when they had a secret to share." She said that over 40% said they "turn to their pets."
6. Physical Activity/Exercise
Most, if not all animals, need exercise. Dogs probably need the most. Playing with and walking dogs give kids exercise without it feeling like work. According to this article in the New York Times, a recent large-scale study showed, "Dog owners are about four times more likely than other people to meet today’s physical activity guidelines." Kids can even get into dog agility classes and really get moving! Other animals can help kids get their exercise on as well from horses to hamsters. I remember when my sister had a hamster were ran around chasing the hamster moving around in his little exercise sphere.
According to this article on the Cleveland Clinic's Heath essentials page, "...research suggests that children who are exposed to animals before age 1 are less likely to encounter these allergies later in life as adults." A study published in 2020 noted the correlation between IgE and pet ownership. (IgE is an antibody made by the immune system that binds to allergens and contributes to an allergic reaction.) According to Andrew Bird, M.D., a UT Southwestern pediatrician who specializes in allergies and immunology, the study shows, "IgE levels were 28.8% lower in children with prenatal pet exposure compared with children whose mothers had no pet. Higher amounts of IgE in a person’s blood is associated with increased sensitivity to common allergens and conditions such as asthma, food allergies, and eczema." Read more here and here. Of course, anyone can be allergic to an animal and be careful to recognize those signs and symptoms if you do have a pet. Fortunately, there are hypoallergenic pets for those with certain allergies.
8. Boost Immunity
According to this article in Orlando Health, "Researchers in Finland found that family pets — dogs in particular — have a protective effect on children’s respiratory tracts. Babies who have early contact with cats or dogs are 30 percent less likely to experience colds, ear infections and coughs than children who are not exposed to animals." And, you don't even have to own a pet to get the protective effect. This article also notes, "A few minutes of petting an animal can give your child an immunity boost, too. One study found that petting a dog for only 18 minutes can raise immunoglobulin A (IgA) levels in our saliva, an antibody that helps protect against infection."
9. Improve Mood/Decrease Anxiety
When I was in law school, my roommate and I loved to go to the local pet store and play with the puppies. We knew it was a form of stress relief without knowing there was actually research about it. A few years later, I visited my sister during finals at her university. Guess what they had for students. A big tent with puppies!! But, pets don't just ease college students stress. The University of Florida actually tested children's saliva for levels of cortisol during stressful moments. Children who had their dog present had less cortisol than kids who had their parent with them! Read Pet Dogs Help Kids Feel Less Stressed for more.
Animals can be very protective on their owners. Canines have the biggest reputation as being "watch dogs." We have a 120 pound German Shepard Mix and strangers are always very hesitant to get near here. Meanwhile, she is a gentle giant with the kids. She is nine years old and has never shown any aggression to a child. But, other animals have protected their owners too. Check out this video of cats protecting children. (I'm not advocating leaving animal unattended with kids.)
Other Ways Kids Can Interact with Animals
*Visiting pets of family members
*Taking care of a class pet
*Agriculture programs at schools
*Volunteer at an animal shelter
I hope you found this article informational. Every families pet situation will be different, but having animals in your child's life in some way may be highly beneficial. If you are considering getting a new pet, this article is a good start: 10 Things to Consider Before Pet Adoption.