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December 05, 2016

Rachael Rufino

How Animals Improve Child Development

Topics: STEM, STEAM

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If you grew up with a family pet, it’s hard to imagine life without one.  Many positive childhood memories are experiences with a beloved pet, such as feeding, petting, playing, or even sharing your secrets with the family cat or dog.  Research has proven that all of those experiences help children develop positive values.  These interactions with animals have also proven to be more effective in developing social skills amongst children with disabilities or who have been traumatized, than standard methods.  Although pet ownership is rewarding, there is a lot to consider before adding another member to the family.  There are also alternatives to pet ownership if you want your child to have animal experiences but cannot have a pet in your home.  The traits and psychological benefits your child will develop around animals will aid them in nearly every aspect of their life.

Choosing a Pet or Pet Alternative

Research is incredibly important before deciding which animal would be the best addition to your home.  For example, did you know that a box turtle can live up to 120 years old?  Or that some boa constrictors can grow up to 12 feet long?  Many parrots can vocalize louder than 100 decibels- that’s comparable to a power lawn mower!  You must consider your child’s temperament around animals, family’s lifestyle, space, finances, time, and how pet responsibilities will be delegated before the animal is in the home.  Adoption is a great option as there are a wide variety of specialized rescues for all groups of animals, although it is important to note that exotic animals may be more expensive when it comes to their specialized needs and dietary requirements.  Individuals from adoption agencies come with a file containing information about their personalities, medical history and more, so you can be confident in your newest family member’s needs with little to no surprises later on.

Pet adopt.jpg If your circumstances do not allow for a family pet, there are other ways children can have similar experiences that may produce beneficial traits.  If you cannot provide a forever home for an animal, you can always foster one.  Even temporarily caring for an animal until it finds a permanent family gives children an opportunity to understand the responsibilities of pet ownership.  Your child may already help care for a classroom pet at school, which is cared for by students on a rotating schedule.  Having your child help care for a family garden or even their own plant for example, still gives them the opportunity to care for a living thing that depends on them.  A digital pet is also an alternative, such as a robotic animal that requires regular attention, a handheld digital pet toy, or even a virtual pet through a computer program or website.  Visits to places where animals are cared for by others are opportunities for your child to learn about animal care, and human and animal relationships.  Children can help take care of animals at petting zoos and fairs by brushing and feeding them.  Observing animals in zoos or aquariums being fed, receiving enrichment, or being trained also help children understand what it means to be responsible for an animal.
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The Benefits of Pet Ownership

  • Respect: Children learn that animals deserve to be treated with care and respect. Animals have limits just like people do and although they may enjoy interaction, sometimes they want space.  Understanding an animal’s boundaries and body language are important and that learned respect translates to respecting other people.
  • Empathy: Having a pet gives children the opportunity to become a caregiver. Children learn to respond to their pet’s needs and may witness their pet’s fear and anxiety in an unfamiliar place or around loud noises.  Recognizing a pet’s needs and comforting them helps children learn how to feel the way others feel, becoming more empathetic.
  • Responsibility: A child should never be solely responsible for a pet, as the responsibility of an animal’s wellbeing ultimately falls on the parents or other responsible adult, but by participating in the care of an animal a child learns good habits. They learn accountability and that they are depended upon by a living thing.  This also helps children develop a conscience.
  • Self-esteem: Pets are non-judgmental. Children know that no matter how bad of a day they are having, a pet is always there to “listen” and be a source of affection.  Many children find comfort in shedding a tear or sharing their secrets with their family companion.
  • Overcoming Fears: Children who grow up with pets are generally less fearful of animals. They become familiar with animals and animal behavior, which makes them less anxious about the unknown.  Additionally, children are less likely to believe myths about animals with less favorable reputations if they have spent time around them. 
  • Circle of Life: As a pet’s health declines due to illness or old age, children learn that life is not infinite, but love and memories are. When a beloved pet passes away, a child learns that they can live through the grieving process and appreciate the life of their special family member.
  • Appreciation of Nature: Through pets, children gain insight into wild and domestic animals.  By observing their behavior, children learn about animal instincts and intelligence.  There is so much to discover about wildlife, that children exposed to nature develop a sense of wonderment and appreciation for life on Earth. 

Pet guinea pig.jpgAnimal experiences have benefited children in ways beyond the traits and skills above. Green Chimneys is a boarding school that provides animal programs for children suffering from abuse, chronic truancy, extreme hyperactivity or parents with addiction.  One of their programs involves children nursing injured wildlife and releasing them back into the wild.  Its founder, Dr. Samuel Ross Jr. stated, “It’s an especially powerful experience for these kids… If you can take care of a disabled animal and see that it can survive, even with a leg missing, then you get the feeling you can survive yourself.”  This interesting parallel can also be applied when adopting a pet with special needs, and give children a sense that despite their hardships, they can thrive.

In children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), a study found that children with ASD demonstrated more social behaviors and received more social approaches from their peers when animals were present, compared to when toys were present.  These behaviors included talking, looking at faces, making physical contact, smiling and laughing.  The study concluded that compared to toys, the presence of an animal significantly increased positive social behaviors among children with ASD.

Researchers have found that children from abusive families can also benefit greatly from pets.  Children who are neglected receive emotional comfort from animals, reducing loneliness.  The pets become substitute mothers or friends, which children can confide in when they are upset.  Daily contact with animals help children gain a sense of self-worth, even in situations where children may feel unimportant.  By loving and caring for an animal, children may interrupt the cycle of abuse, despite not being well cared for themselves.
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 When a child is given the responsibility to help care for a living creature, they are given the opportunity to grow into a responsible, social and confident adult.  Animals are always there when we need an ear to listen, but also remind us that there is more to life than just ourselves.  Through animal experiences, we become more curious, respectful and appreciative of living things, and that is a trait we can all benefit from.

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