In a not-so-surprising twist, it turns out that pets really are kids’ best friends. A recent scientific study by the University of Cambridge has confirmed what most of us always suspected — our pets really were better company than our siblings.
Memories of my childhood feel like a montage reel from a sappy remake of Lassie. There I am, playing in the dirt while my golden retriever watches with a soulful yet curious expression. And there we are again, running through a field together, filthy jeans and golden fur both posing a potential menace to clean furniture. At night, kept awake by childish fears, my scruffy cat slept in the crook of my arm, offering comfort (and the occasional growl whenever I tried to move).
No matter what happened, I knew that my pets had my back. It wasn’t that my sister and I weren’t close, but there is just something special about a kid’s bond with their pet. Now, science has managed to measure that bond.
Asking a child what she thinks about her sibling is always tricky, so the scientists posed a series of questions that measured the level of satisfaction the kids in the study felt with their relationships with their pets and their siblings.
They found that kids consistently rated higher satisfaction with their relationships with their pets than they did with their siblings, and also reported lower levels of conflict. Seeing as most pets can’t talk back (certain bird species aside), this seems like a pretty reasonable assessment, but what was interesting was that kids reported sharing as much information with their pets as they did with their siblings, despite the lack of verbal feedback — or perhaps because of it.
They also found that girls had more nuanced relationships with their pets than boys. Both boys and girls rated equal levels of satisfaction, but girls reported more conflict, disclosure and companionship with their pets.
As interesting as all of this is, I admit that I was a little curious about why the researchers cared about how kids felt about their animals. The answer was heartening. According to Matt Cassells, a Gates Cambridge Scholar at the Department of Psychiatry, researchers “… wanted to know how strong these relationships are with pets relative to other close family ties. Ultimately, this may enable us to understand how animals contribute to healthy child development.”
As a result of the study, researchers now know that pets play a larger positive role in child development than we realize. The support they provide kids and adolescents may even help their psychological well-being as adults, which just goes to show that animal lovers have been right all along — our pets really are family.