Many age-based changes in patterns of behavioral interactions with pets are generally parallel to the developmental changes in interaction patterns that children have with familiar humans, including parents, siblings, and peers. Most children rate their own pets very high on both characteristics while they rate neighborhood animals high on companionship but not on love and affection. While little children are too young to worry about preventing stress or lowering health care costs, there are numerous benefits they can experience from having a family pet.
Pets, whether a dog, cat, bird, hamster, reptile or fish, help children gain a sense of independence that can set them on the path to becoming mature, responsible adults. Thus, children`s relationships with familiar animals, especially pets, are unique and different from their relationships with others in their social world. The relationship with pets typically is complementary to these other relationships rather than a substitute for any one type of human relationship.
Children can learn the importance of responsibility at an early age by acting as a caretaker for a pet. Fish are a terrific first pet because children can play a large role in caring for them. However, other pets that require more attention, like a cat or dog, can present an ideal opportunity for parent and child to bond while caring for the pet together. Showing children what it means to be responsible for another creature`s survival can result in teaching important life lessons such as discipline, patience, kindness and attentiveness.
Bringing a pet home and into the family can be an effective way to help prepare children for real-life scenarios. For example, pets can ease the transition of suddenly having to share parents attention with a new brother or sister by demonstrating how much fun new playmates can be, as well as what is involved in caring for another. Pets can also help kids learn to deal with medical issues and illnesses as they are exposed to routine veterinarian check-ups with their pet, and the treatments for various ailments.
Of course, children differ in their attitudes and relationships toward pets, and some of these differences can be related to factors such as family size, presence or absence of younger siblings, and family income. The long-term consequences for children of establishing such relationships with pets and other animals suggest that, at least for some, the presence of a pet is greatly beneficial. On the one hand, it has been suggested that exposure to pets should facilitate the establishment and maintenance of relationships with peers, especially in school. On the other hand, there has been some concern that children who establish too intense a relationship with a pet may suffer in the development of sophisticated and meaningful relationships with other people.
More research is needed to determine what such long-term consequences might be and to identify any conditions, situations, or characteristics of particular children whose specific relationships with their pets put them at risk for developing problems in subsequent social, emotional, and cognitive development. Prospective studies in home or neighborhood settings would be very useful in this regard.