Caring for pets may promote child-pet attachment which may, in turn, benefit both children and animals

Hawkins, R. ., Williams, J. ., & SPCA, S. S. for the P. of C. to A. S. (2017). Childhood attachment to pets: Associations between pet attachment, attitudes to animals, compassion, and humane behaviour. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 14.

This study investigated the relationships between childhood attachment to pets, pet care, compassion to animals, and attitudes towards animals. This study also examined sociodemographic differences, especially in relation to pet ownership and pet type.

The study was conducted in Scotland with over one thousand children (age 7-12) participating. The children completed questionnaires individually in their classrooms under the supervision of their teachers. Different sections of the questionnaire collected information about family affluence, pet ownership (kind of pets, number of pets), emotional attachment to pets, attitudes towards animals (pets, wild animals, and farm animals), compassion towards animals, and humane behavior towards animals. The “humane behavior” section included three subscales: caring behavior, friendship behavior, and aggression.

Most of the children had family pets (67%), and over half of the children (54%) had a pet of their own. Dogs (35%) and cats (22%) were the most common types of pets. Most of the children reported being strongly attached to their pets. Attachment scores, however, differed depending on pet type and child gender. Children with dogs scored the highest on attachment while children with pet birds scored the lowest. Girls scored significantly higher on attachment to pets than boys across all ages. Girls also scored higher on compassion, friendship behavior, caring behavior, and attitudes towaerd animals than boys. There was no significant difference between younger (6–9 years) and older children (10–13 years) in attachment to pets. Older children, however, scored higher on caring behavior but not on compassion, friendship behavior, or attitudes toward animals. Eighty percent of the children said they loved pets; 83% of those with pets said their pet made them happy; and 76% said their pet was their best friend. Many children (62%) said they would be lonely without their pet, and over half (52%) thought their pet knew when they were upset. Children with a pet of their own scored higher on pet attachment than children without their own pet. Further analysis indicated that pet-directed friendship, compassion and caring facilitated attachment to pets. Pet attachment, in turn, was significantly associated with positive attitudes towards animals.

These findings have implications for the promotion of pro-social and humane behavior in children. Engaging children in caring for pets seems to foster attachment between children and their pets. This attachment may, in turn, promote reduced aggression, a stronger sense of well-being, and improved quality of life for children. Attachment between children and pets may also promote more humane treatment of pets and other animals. As the researchers suggest, the compassion and empathy children develop towards animals may generalize to human-directed empathy.

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