The decision to commit to a family pet can be difficult. Some parents think having a family pet isn’t necessary, while others feel pets are a must. If you’re on the fence about that darling dog, mischievous kitty or even one of those other small pets that are easy to take care of, why not consider some of the benefits of pets for child development?
Having a pet takes work, true. But it can be incredibly rewarding – and plenty of good can come from the experience. After all, pets aren’t just there to cuddle or to play with. They’re living creatures with unique needs that need attention and care.
And the good news is, starting at age 5, kids can take on developmentally appropriate tasks in caring for pets, notes early childhood educator Tracy Trautner on the Michigan State University Extension website. By 10 years, many children are ready to fly solo. And all ages – even younger kids, who require more adult supervision – can reap the rewards.
Here are a variety of ways a pooch, feline or other critter can help your child develop.
Holly Glomski, manager of Pingree Farms in Detroit, says to be a good animal caretaker, you need to do your research and study up on your animal. Knowing your animal’s biology and what diet is best for it are key skills.
“If they want to be a great pet owner,” Glomski says, “they have to be a great scientist.”
That means your child should always be asking questions, Glomski explains. When kids are taught at a young age to learn about their pet – and to do their own digging – it only helps them in the long run when they will have to put those skills to work in class or on the job.
This is one of main benefits of pets for child development – because, without a responsible owner, a pet could not survive. As Glomski puts it, “There are no days off” when it comes to raising an animal, because you are caring for a living being that is depending on you for its life.
Those responsibilities range from making sure your pet is being fed the correct amounts of food and water at the right times during the day to taking your pup outside to potty – or cleaning out the litter box for cats or cages for other animals.
Having a pet brings another living creature’s needs and emotions into the picture – and, with that, there’s the possibility of bonding between animal and child.
“What more pure connection can you have than with a pet?” says Glomski, who emphasizes the importance of being able to understand another species that doesn’t speak our language.
Animals have an amazing ability to show empathy towards kids, as well. Glomski points to a time when she witnessed a horse show gentleness as it touched noses with a 3-year-old child.
Pet ownership can also be a great way for parents and children to build trust. This can play out in various ways.
If your children demonstrate they can successfully care for their pet, that can foster confidence from parents. It can show kids are set for bigger life challenges, like cultivating healthy friendships, staying home alone and minding curfews, to name a few.
There’s also trust built between animal and child, notes Trautner of MSU Extension. “They can teach your child to trust the pet, themselves and build trust in other relationships,” she says.
If you can take care of animals, Glomski adds, then you are trustworthy.
There have been various studies showing how having animals positively affects mental health. “Having an animal makes for a happier person,” Glomski says.
Perhaps one of the best benefits of pets for child development is having that special animal next to you when you’re feeling down or need a companion.
Besides mental health, animals can really help with physical health, as well. Taking your pet for a walk or playing fetch with a toy is key to the pet’s health – but it also helps kids add some fun exercise to their routines, too.
Even grooming can boost a child’s physical IQ. That’s because, as Trautner explains, “Brushing develops large muscles of the arm.”
Training a pet is another classic responsibility for kids – and it takes a lot of patience. Glomski says that the child has to be patient and understand that training is going to take time and repetition, whether it involves leash training or learning tricks.
This process also teaches kids how to be more patient in other contexts. That could include situations at school – or future interactions. Grown-ups are faced with many differing opinions and personalities, after all, and patience is key in learning not to jump to conclusions, Glomski says.