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Children build stronger relationships with pets than siblings

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A recent study conducted by the University of Cambridge revealed that children receive gratification from relationships with their pets more so than those with their siblings. Additionally, children have been found to get along better with their pets than with their siblings.

This 10-year-long study of children’s social and emotional growth encompasses data on a child’s relationship with his or her pets, compared with relationships with other people like their parents, siblings and teachers.

The study was printed in the Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology and was researched in partnership with the WALTHAM Centre for Pet Nutrition, a division of Mars Petcare and co-developed by the Economic and Social Research Council. Examiners observed 12-year-old children from 77 families with one or more pets of various types and more than one sibling in their households.

The study revealed that children receive more gratification from relationships with pets than with siblings. As a result, they are more likely to share secrets with their pets. Photo by: Agata Poniatowski

Pets are prevalent in western homes, yet their influence on children and early adolescents has barely been studied. There are only a handful of investigations on the significance of child-pet bonds. This stems from a shortage of ways that researchers can go about assessing these bonds.

The first goal of the study was to redesign the traditional calculation of human relationship value, known as the Network of Relationships Inventory. Researchers then enforced the NRI to see how pet relationship quality differs with pet type and the child’s gender, as well as to compare participants’ contact with pets and siblings.

“Anyone who has loved a childhood pet knows that we turn to them for companionship and disclosure, just like relationships between people. We wanted to know how strong these relationships with pets relative to other close family ties. Ultimately this may enable us to understand how animals contribute to healthy child development,” said Matt Cassells, a Gates Cambridge Scholar at the Department of Psychiatry who managed the study.

While researchers in the past believed that boys had more secure relationships with their pets than girls, the new data has found that girls had a closer relationship with their pets than boys.

This may demonstrate that girls connect with their pets in a more distinct way. Dog owners were also happier with their pets than owners of other pets. Children gained more delight and were involved more with their pets than with their siblings. They had less disputes with their pets, indicating the impact of a young adolescent-pet relation. Owners of dogs also had the lowest amount of disagreements than owners of other pets.

Children who face challenges such as divorce, illness or an underprivileged upbringing were expected to have a better relationship with their pets than with their peers. They further displayed more selfless acts, such as cooperating, helping and sharing, than their peers did. It was also more likely for these children to confess secrets to their pets than their siblings.

“It is really surprising that these children not only turn to their pets for support when faced with adversity, but that they do so even more than they turn to their siblings. This is even though they know their pets do not actually understand what they are saying,” Cassells said.

Researcher posited that another reason children get attached to pets is that because pets cannot talk; they cannot be critical or judgmental.

“Even though pets may not fully understand or respond verbally, the level of disclosure to pets was no less than to siblings,” added Cassells. “The fact that pets cannot understand or talk back may even be a benefit as it means they are completely non-judgmental.”

The research supports the growing proof that household pets have a vital effect on a child’s maturation and could benefit children’s social abilities and emotional health. The University of Cambridge confirmed that a firm relationship with pets increases a child’s overall joy.

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