Published: February 4, 2021


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

Authors:

Hayley Christian, Francis Mitrou, Rebecca Cunneen, & Stephen R. Zubrick.


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.