Scientists from the University of Cambridge have found that children get more satisfaction from relationships with pets than their siblings. They’re also less likely to have conflicts with their pets when compared to their brothers and sisters. The benefits were highest for dog owners. The findings are in a paper that was just published in the Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology.
Over half of all US households contain at least one pet, usually a dog or cat. Although there is a myriad of studies showing the health and psychological benefits of pet ownership, these studies have generally focused on adult owners. Researchers have suggested that children may benefit just as much, if not more, from pet relationships. There is a serious lack of research in this area, however, because there’s no tool for measuring the relationship between a child and their pet.
A team of researchers built on an existing tool called the Network of Relationships Inventory (NRI). The NRI has traditionally been used to measure human relationships in psychology studies. The team adapted the NRI scale to work for child-pet relationships, allowing them to compare the child’s relationship with their pet to their relationship with siblings.
The research team recruited 77 children, all aged 12. All of the children were from families that had a minimum of one pet of any species, though most households had dogs or cats. Only children with at least one sibling were included in the study. The researchers interviewed the children and rated their relationships using the modified NRI scale.
In general, children reported much higher levels of relationship satisfaction with their pets when compared to relationships with siblings. Girls reported closer relationships and were more likely to confide in pets; this was especially in families with dogs. There was also less conflict between kids and their pets, as opposed to the sometimes high levels of conflict with siblings.
The team’s findings suggest that pets may provide adolescents with better social support than siblings. The researchers believe this might be because pets are nonverbal, making them good “listeners.” The team is already considering follow-up studies to better understand child-pet relationship dynamics.
Cassels et al. One of the family? Measuring young adolescents’ relationships with pets and siblings. Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology (2017).