Sunday, January 29, 2017

Are children closer to companion animals than to their siblings?

Companion animals "may exert developmental influence similar to siblings," a study claims.

Children often have a closer relationship with companion animals than their siblings, a study has found. This may come as a surprise, until one considers that “In the US and England pets are more common in families with children than resident fathers”(University of Cambridge Research, 2017) and “In Western households pets are nearly as common as siblings: in the UK for example, just under three quarters (74%) of families with a ten-year-old child also own a pet (Westgarth et at., 2010)”(Cassels et al., 2017).

Matt Cassels, lead author of the study, was using data from the Toddlers Up Project lead by Professor Claire Hughes at the Centre forFamily Research. This is a ten-year longitudinal study of the social and emotional development of children. Cassels utilised an adaptation of an established measure of human relationship quality, the Network of Relationships Inventory, to determine how factors such as companion animal type and child’s gender affected relationship quality, and to compare children’s relationships with companion animals to their relationships with their siblings.

It makes sense. Companion animals are treated as members of the family, they share a home with children and – like children – are typically dependent on the adult figures in the household for their care(Cassels et al., 2017).

For this study the researchers looked at data from 77 twelve-year-old children.
The findings are fascinating. Children reported deriving greater satisfaction and more companionship from dogs when compared to other species.  Girls reported deriving more companionship, and engaging more disclosure with companion animals, as well as – interestingly – conflict with pets, than did boys. The nature of this conflict is not discussed but it would be interesting to learn more.
Another striking finding was that children in this study reported deriving more satisfaction and engaging in less conflict with companion animals than with siblings.

The reasons why are a matter of conjecture. My immediate thought is that children may compete for similar resources while there is less competition with a companion animal for the same resources. Companion animals cannot talk back, therefore it may be harder to express disagreement.

There are limitations with the study, including its relatively small sample size and shortcomings associated with the NRI, as discussed by the authors.
But if we entertain the concept that “pets may exert developmental influence similar to that of siblings”(Cassels et al., 2017), it certainly raises questions about our responsibilities in fostering the quality of relationships between children and companion animals, and role-modelling of care for non-human members of the household. It also raises questions about the impact of negative relationships (for example, where a child is frightened of or harms companion animals) on both children and companion animals, and the enormity of losing a companion animal in childhood.

Companion animals are ever-present and often in the background. As I was discussing with a client this week, we probably spend more time in their company than we do with other humans in our lives, we just don’t always realise.  


CASSELS, M. T., WHITE, N., GEE, N. & HUGHES, C. 2017. One of the family? Measuring young adolescents' relationships with pets and siblings. Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology, 49, 12-20.

UNIVERSITY OF CAMBRIDGE RESEARCH. 2017. Child's Best Friend? [Online]. Available: [Accessed 29 January].