Journal Article

Pets are associated with fewer peer problems and emotional symptoms, and better prosocial behavior: Findings from the Longitudinal Study of Australian Children

Published: 2020

Abstract:

Objective

To investigate the longitudinal association between pet ownership and children’s social-emotional development.

Study design

Two time-points of data from the Longitudinal Study of Australian Children were analyzed for children at ages 5 (n = 4242) and 7 (n = 4431) years. The Strengths and Difficulties Questionnaire (SDQ) measured children’s social-emotional development. Pet ownership status and type (dog, cat, other) as well as sociodemographic and other potential confounders were collected. Longitudinal panel regression models were used.

Results

Overall, 27% of children had abnormal scores on 1 or more SDQ scales. By age 7, 75% of children had pets with ownership highest in single-child households. Owning any type of pet was associated with decreased odds of abnormal scores for emotional symptoms (OR, 0.81; 95% CI, 0.67-0.99), peer problems (OR, 0.71; 95% CI, 0.60-0.84), and prosocial behavior (OR, 0.70; 95% CI, 0.38-0.70), compared with non-pet owners. Dog ownership was associated with decreased odds of abnormal scores on any of the SDQ scales (OR, 0.81; 95% CI, 0.71-0.93). For children without any siblings, only the prosocial behavior scale was significantly associated with pet ownership (OR, 0.21; 95% CI, 0.07-0.66). In longitudinal models, cat-only and dog-only groups were associated with fewer emotional symptoms and peer problems compared with non-pet owners.

Conclusions

Early school age is an important period for family pet acquisition. Pets may protect children from developing social-emotional problems and should be taken into account when assessing child development and school readiness. Children without siblings may benefit most in terms of their prosocial behavior.

Christian, H., Mitrou, F., Cunneen, R., & Zubrick, S. R. (2020). Pets are associated with fewer peer problems and emotional symptoms, and better prosocial behavior: Findings from the Longitudinal Study of Australian Children. The Journal of Pediatrics, 220, 200-206.e2. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jpeds.2020.01.012