Pets’ Positive Impact on Children: Physical, Emotional, Cognitive, and Social

It is every child’s dream… to own a pet. Whether its the stray cat at your doorstep or the playful pup in the pet store window, animals find a way into our hearts. We naturally want to care for them, feed them, and hold and squeeze them! They do not come empty handed either as they provide companionship, comfort, and a chance to be a kid again yourself! You may want to say yes to your child’s next plea of, “Can we keep him?” since studies show that a child’s social, emotional, physicial, and cognitive development can all be encouraged by interaction with the family pet.

SOCIAL

Pets can be wonderful social facilitators as they create an invitation for children to enter otherwise uncomfortable or uninteresting social scenarios. Making friends is less intimidating when their is a furry friend to be made as well.

A pet itself can be a social object for children because of the nature of their relationship. “Because animals accept us for who we are, pets give some practice in a social relationship,” says Dickstein, Ph.D., Director of Humane Education for the ASPCA. Carlie Van Willigen’s five-year-old son Murphy is developmentally disabled, his mother reports that he never really noticed his surroundings. That all changed when they got a dog two years ago.

“For a while, he didn’t seem to even notice the dog, until one day he was running through the kitchen and skidded to a stop in front of the dog and started petting her. Eventually, he began throwing his ball and the dog would fetch it and he thought that was the greatest thing.” says Van Willigen as she sees their dog as one of the catalysts that helped Murphy learn that there is a world outside of himself and his own needs.

EMOTIONAL

Pets can be a safe place for children to express their emotions and give them the time to process how they feel and think about a situation. We all need a safe place to turn and a pet is a ready listener who won’t offer any negative feedback- just a furry back to rest your head upon.

This self-awareness can be a bridge to self-confidence as Dickstein points out, “As kids age and take on more of the care for the pet, it helps to build self-confidence.” She points out however, that it is not guaranteed that owning a pet will teach children responsibility. “Parents teach responsibility,” explains Dickstein, “Pets just make a good vehicle for learning.”

Keep in mind that the responsibility a child has for her pet needs to be age appropriate. Starting at around three years old, a child can help fill food and water bowls. By five, he can begin to groom as well as to help keep the pet’s living area clean. As children near the mid-elementary school aged years, they can begin walking a dog independently, and as the teen years approach, the child will most likely be able to take over the majority of responsibilities for a house pet.

PHYSICAL

“Pets provide an impetus for running and practicing motor skills,” says Sheryl Dickstein. It is the perfect excuse for taking a break form the TV watching and video games that kids are tempted to default to. Taking the dog for a daily walk, running in the back yard, and throwing a ball are great ways to exercise the dog as well get children moving around. ┬áSmall motor skills can be encouraged when children scoop food and pour water into dishes, and help to groom them. Depending on the child’s age, parental supervision is recommended for both the child’s and the pet’s safety.

COGNITIVE

Encouraging children to read about their pet as well as to take part in obedience classes can encourage a child’s cognitive development as it sparks the desire for learning. Bringing the child along to a veterinarian appointment will give him a chance to ask questions about proper care and his pet’s health.

Helping children to research information about their pet on the Internet is another way they can learn about the pet’s special needs and unique characteristics as well as to correspond with other owners of the same type of pet .As children grow, they may develop an interest in a specific type or breed of animal and you can encourage them to follow their interests even if they do not own that particular pet.

Brining a pet into the family is not a decision that should be made lightly. It first must be a commitment by the parents, not the child, as they will ultimately be responsible for the pet’s welfare. Once that commitment has been made, however, and an appropriate pet has been found for the family, the joys and benefits of the pet relationship will last for many years to come.

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