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The influence of animals on the development of children
Nienke Endenburga,⇑, Hein A. van Lithb,c
aDepartment of Animals in Science and Society, Division of Human–Animal Relationship and Animal Behaviour Clinic, Faculty of Veterinary Medicine,
Utrecht University, The Netherlands
bDepartment of Animals in Sciences and Society, Division of Animal Welfare & Laboratory Animals Science Program Emotion and Cognition, Faculty of Veterinary Medicine,
Utrecht University, The Netherlands
cRudolf Magnus Institute of Neuroscience, University Medical Centre Utrecht, The Netherlands
a r t i c l ei n f o
Accepted 18 November 2010
Animal assisted therapy
a b s t r a c t
There is a widespread belief that interaction with an animal is beneficial for the development of children,
and several studies (most with methodological shortcomings) have investigated the influence of (com-
panion) animals on the social–emotional and cognitive development of children. In this article, the
1984 model of Professor Jay Belsky has been used to describe which variables influence the development
of children and how the companion animal–child interaction influences these variables. The value of the
AAA/AAT (Animal Assisted Activities/Animal Assisted Therapy) programmes in children with a wide vari-
ety of clinical and social problems, such as behaviour problems and autistic spectrum symptoms, is dis-
cussed. The findings suggest that (companion) animals positively influence children’s development and
have a valuable role in therapy.
? 2010 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.
Parents often buy their children a companion animal because
they think that having an animal to play with and look after is a
good thing. Indeed, such parents may consider that having a com-
panion animal helps their children become more responsible and
more social, and develops their character (Endenburg, 1991). How-
ever, the relationship between humans and animals, and especially
the influence of companion animals on children, is a relatively new
area of research. To date, research on children’s contact with ani-
mals involves two distinct groups of studies, namely, those looking
at the impact of contact with companion animals on the develop-
ment of children, and those investigating the use in therapy of ani-
mals, such as dogs, horses and dolphins. These programmes are
known as Animal Assisted Activities (AAA) and Animal Assisted
Therapy (AAT), respectively. Both types of studies are reviewed
here. Attention must also be given to the welfare of the animals
used in AAA and AAT, but, as Serpell et al. (2006) have stated ‘Ani-
mal Assisted Intervention has encountered growing popularity in the
absence of a systematic assessment of the potential threats to the wel-
fare of the animals’.
Studies of children and animals touch on cognitive, social, and
emotional development and involve diverse sub-populations of
children. Many early reports were case studies, but in later work
questionnaires, surveys, and interview approaches were used.
Although several interesting investigations have been reported
(see, for example, Nimer and Lundahl, 2007; Melson, 2003), the
mechanisms underlying the results remain unclear. A problem
with this line of research is that it is difficult (although not impos-
sible) to conduct experimental studies (Endenburg, 1991). For
example, it is not feasible to ‘force’ people to take a companion ani-
mal whilst others are told that they are not allowed to do so. It is
therefore difficult to say anything about causal relationships.
Sometimes in care facilities it is possible to give an animal to cer-
tain groups of children but not to other groups, but this type of
study is rare and it is difficult to generalise these data to children
living with their families under ‘normal’ circumstances.
Despite the methodological weaknesses of existing studies, the
evidence for contact with animals promoting healthy child devel-
opment is promising (Faber Taylor and Kuo, 2006). Whilst there
is ambiguity in the findings of individual studies, the persistence
of positive findings across different investigations incorporating
different methodological weaknesses makes it likely that this is a
The development of children
In order to investigate the influence of animals on children’s
development, it is first necessary to briefly describe how children
develop, using the model of Belsky (1984), which is a process mod-
el, to explain the variables that influence child development.
Children have to master tasks concerning cognitive as well as
socialand emotionaldevelopment. Thesetasks represent
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⇑Corresponding author. Tel.: +31 30 253 1565; fax: +31 30 253 7997.
E-mail address: firstname.lastname@example.org (N. Endenburg).
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milestones in development. According to Belsky (1984), three do-
mains of variables interact to influence this process, namely, (1)
the characteristics of the child, (2) the personal psychological re-
sources of the parents, and (3) the contextual sources of stress
and support. The child’s characteristics include (at least partly)
genetically determined factors (for example, temperament and
intelligence), which influence the development of the child, are rel-
atively stable, and are little affected by other variables such as par-
enting. Temperament refers to those aspects of an individual’s
personality, such as introversion and extroversion that are often
regarded as innate rather than learned (Zentner and Bates, 2008).
Intelligence is the aggregate or global capacity of the individual
to act purposefully, to think rationally, and to deal effectively with
his environment (Wechsler, 1944). Of the personal psychological
resources of the parents, ‘personality’, ‘work of parents’, ‘marital
relations’, and the ‘parenting style’ are important factors, and of
the contextual sources of stress and support, ‘social network’ and
‘peer group’ may be important (Fig. 1). Social networks mean, for
instance, a religious group, co-workers or sports clubs. Social net-
works are clearly different depending on the person.
When we talk about ‘child development’, we mean a combina-
tion of social–emotional development and cognitive development.
Social–emotional development can be measured by self-esteem
and a positive social orientation of the child, but social skills and
a sense of social or moral responsibility can also contribute to
the building of self-esteem. Self-esteem is a term used to reflect
a person’s overall evaluation or appraisal of his or her own worth
(Rosenberg, 1963). Cognitive development can be assessed when
children learn to read, write, and are able to do mathematics.
How a child develops is also influenced by the child’s social net-
work: the social development of a child without friends is very dif-
ferent from that of a child with many friends. For example, the
support provided by social networks can enhance self-esteem
(Cochran and Brassard, 1979) and contribute to mental health, pos-
sibly by providing a buffering, protective function against psycho-
social stress (Cohen and Wills, 1985; Parry and Shapiro, 1986).
Obviously, parents and parenting styles also influence how a
child develops. Parental use of induction or reasoning, consistent
discipline, and expressions of warmth are positively related to
self-esteem and intellectual achievement during the school-age
years (Belsky, 1984). Parents should be sensitive to the needs of
their children. The model of parental functioning assumes that
there is a link between the parents’ psychological well-being and
their functioning as parents, which in turn reflects their own expe-
riences while growing up (Belsky et al., 2007). Other factors, such
as marital relations, also influence parenting. Belsky (1984) found
that a positive marital relationship was a major factor supporting
competent parenting. In a single parent family this kind of support
will not be available, and when parents disagree about how to raise
their children there is also no such support.
Social networks can also have a beneficial influence on parent-
ing as they provide emotional support. This support can be defined
as the love and interpersonal acceptance an individual receives
from others, either through explicit statements to that effect or
as a result of considerate actions (Belsky, 1984), so that people feel
cared for and accepted. The work status of the parents also influ-
ences parenting. Unemployment can introduce stress into the fam-
ily and will also influence the financial status (Baarda, 1988).
Financial strain is more salient for people of lower socio-economic
status, and a damage to sense of self for the victims of job loss for
those of a higher socio-economic status (Blake Turner, 1995). In
general, being unemployed was seen as more negative than attrac-
tive for welfare benefits (Taris et al., 1995). If both parents work,
children may have other forms of daytime care, although there is
no evidence that this has a significant negative or positive influ-
ence on their development (Heath and McKenry, 1989).
There are other models of child development (Conger et al.,
1992; Petterson and Burke Albers, 2001). The reason why the mod-
el of Belsky was chosen here is that it looks at three parts, namely,
(1) personal psychological resources of the parents; (2) character-
istics of the child, and (3) contextual sources of stress and support
(this can be through grandparents, relatives and/or the community
at large). Other models only look at a certain part, such as poverty
of maternal depression on the development of children.
Although other factors not included in Belsky’s model will influ-
ence a child’s development, the model provides a useful framework
Fig. 1. A process model of the determinants of child development and the possible influence of companion animals.
N. Endenburg, H.A. van Lith/The Veterinary Journal 190 (2011) 208–214
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for examining the potential influence of companion animals on the
development of children. The variables, as illustrated in Fig. 1, are
not independent of but influence each other as the development of
children is a dynamic process.
Companion animals may play a special role in the emotional
development of children, particularly in the development of self-
esteem, autonomy, and empathy for others (Wilks, 1999). In a 9-
month study on the effects of keeping companion animals in a
school classroom, Bergesen (1989) found that the children’s self-
esteem scores increased significantly. Covert et al. (1985) found
that teenagers who owned companion animals scored higher on
a measure of self-esteem than those who did not. Another study
found that adults’ self-concept was related to the age when they
first bonded with a companion animal: those who had a first com-
panion animal during their teenage years or when they were youn-
ger than 6 years scored higher on a measure of self-concept than
adults who had a first companion animal between the ages of 6
and 12 (Poresky et al., 1988a,b). It was not mentioned whether
or not these children were given the chief responsibility for the
animal, but the companion animal and child were in the same
household. By self-concept we mean here the mental image or per-
ception that one has of oneself (Poresky et al., 1988a,b). The term
‘bonding’ refers to the process of attachment that develops be-
tween close friends, parents and children (Bowlby, 1990).
This interaction with age of the effects of companion animals on
self-esteem or self-concept has been reported by others. For in-
stance, Van Houtte and Jarvis (1995) found significant differences
in fifth and sixth grade participants, where those children who
owned companion animals had higher self-esteem than those
without animals; on the other hand third and fourth grade com-
panion animal owners did not score significantly higher on self-es-
teem than non-companion animal owners. These findings suggest
that companion animals have their greatest influence on children
as they approach adolescence. This might be because children are
given greater responsibility for the companion animal or because
children experience more problems or uncertainty and need the
emotional support they derive from their companion animals.
Bryant and Whorley (1989) found that children’s use of their
companion animals for emotional support was most clearly related
to a good experience of such support from their parents. This means
that when children have had emotional support from their parents,
animals. Poresky and Hendrix (1989) also found that those children
with companion animals and a better home environment showed
social support provided by companion animals.
A study examining self-esteem in early adolescence revealed
that participants ranked a companion animal below parents but
above other social referents on a list of things that made them feel
good or satisfied with themselves (Juhasz, 1985). It is worth noting
that two non-companion animal studies involving random assign-
ment to conditions with and without animals also linked increased
self-esteem/self-concept with animals. In a study by Dismuke
(1984), children interacting with horses during therapy sessions
had a greater increase in scores on a measure of self-esteem than
those receiving therapy without a horse. In work by Katcher and
Gregory (2000), youths who participated in a programme that
incorporated hands-on learning with animals and natural ecosys-
tems scored higher on a measure of self-concept than youths par-
ticipating in the regular school programme. Companion animals
appear to positively influence emotional development, with age
and the home environment appearing to be important mediators
of this effect.
Children who grow up in a household with dogs exhibited
greater social competence and developed into more socially com-
petent adults than other children (Guttman et al., 1985; Melson
et al., 1989; Endenburg and Baarda, 1995; Melson, 1995). By social
competence is meant the condition of possessing the social, emo-
tional and intellectual skills and behaviours needed to succeed as
a member of society (Owens and Johnston-Rodriguez, 2010). Social
competence will make it easier for children to belong to a social
network, which itself can provide support, and higher levels of so-
cial support are associated with positive effects on various diseases
and stress-buffering effects (Heinrichs et al., 2003).
It has been suggested that companion animals enhance social
interactions between people, and increase or strengthen social net-
works and social provisions in children, increasing their psycholog-
ical well-being (McNicholas and Collis, 2000). Measures of social
competence include observed or reported levels of social skills,
social preference, peer status, pro-social behaviour, or develop-
mentally appropriate social play behaviour (e.g., social pretend or
co-operative play for preschoolers) (Trentacosta and Fine, 2010).
Guttman (1984) found that boys who owned a companion animal
performed better on measures of their capacity for decoding
non-verbal information,potentially making
communication, than boys who did not.
An important factor in social development is empathy, i.e. the
perceived emotional experience of another person (Daly and
Morton, 2006). Empathy with animals, such as the ability to per-
ceive their needs, seems to have a transfer effect to empathy with
people (Ascione, 1992), and is therefore a basis for the develop-
ment of social intelligence (Kidd and Kidd, 1987). Children who
own companion animals tend to score higher on an empathy scale
than children who do not (Bryant, 1986; Melson and Fogel, 1989;
Ascione and Weber, 1996; Paul, 2000). Hergovich et al. (2002) also
found an increase in empathy that may be the result of the pres-
ence of a companion animal, but lasting effects have not been con-
sistently examined. One study (Ascione and Weber, 1996) found
that humane attitudes persisted at the time of a post-test con-
ducted at Year Two follow-up but it did not specifically address
empathy. Research has shown that children who have a positive
attitude towards companion animals are more empathic than
those who have a negative, or less positive, attitude (Daly and
But which animal factors influence empathy? Poresky (1990,
1996) and Poresky et al. (1987) found that owning a companion
animal is much less important for social competence than bonding
with the animal. They found that attachment between the child
and its companion animal was a more reliable measure than own-
ing a companion animal per se. Attachment is mostly used in the
psychological field where there are many studies about this topic,
mostly pertaining to the attachment between mother and child
(Endenburg, 1991). According to Ainsworth et al. (1978) ‘attach-
ment is the term for a relatively durable affective relationship between
a child and one or more specific persons with whom it interacts regu-
larly’. Many owners consider their companion animal to be a part
of the family, treat it as a child and speak to it (Wells, 2009).
Three studies have found that young children with a strong
bond or close relationship with their companion animal scored
higher on a measure of empathy than children with a weak rela-
tionship with their companion animal (Poresky, 1990, 1996;
Vidovic et al., 1999), and children without a companion animal
(Vidovic et al., 1999).
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Thus attachment to companion animals may have a moderating
effect. Melson (1988) has shown that involvement with a compan-
ion animal (and not simply companion animal ownership) is re-
lated to children’s involvement in non-school social activities
(preschoolers: r = 0.51, P < 0.0011; second graders: r = 0.48, P <
0.0001; fifth graders: r = 0.55, P < 0.0001 and boys: r = 0.50,
P < 0.0001; girls: r = 0.52, P < 0.0001). This was also found in the
study of Daly and Morton (2006) and is consistent with the study
of Vidovic et al. (1999) in which children strongly attached to their
companion animals scored not only higher on empathy and pro-
social behaviour scales, but also rated their family climate in a
more favourable way than did children who were less attached
to their companion animals. Bodsworth and Coleman (2001)
reported that differences in the degree to which children were
attached to their companion animals were associated with single-
or two-parent family environments. Children from one-parent
families were significantly more attached to their dogs. Strand
(2004) suggested that child attachment to companion animals
plays a buffering role during parental strife. Further research is
required to show whether or not attachment and involvement
are the same concepts in this context.
We must also ask whether or not children with a specific animal
preference are more empathic than those with another preference
or with no preference at all. Vidovic et al. (1999) found that only
dog owners (i.e. those having at least one dog) were more em-
pathic than non-owners (i.e. having no companion animal), and
similar results were obtained for prosocial orientation. Age can also
influence social behaviour. In a study in which animals (mainly
dogs) were present in school classes, teachers reported higher so-
cial integration and a decrease in the number of aggressive chil-
dren. The mean age of the children was 6.7 years (Kotrschal and
Ortbauer, 2003). Melson et al. (1991) found that 5-year-old boys
and fifth-grade boys and girls who were attached to a companion
animal at home scored higher on measures of empathy, but that
this was not so clear-cut in secondary school children. Melson
et al. (1991) also found that the perceived emotional and cognitive
competence of primary school children was related to their attach-
ment to a companion animal. Accordingly, other factors, such as
age, could have a mediating effect on the association between com-
panion animals and empathy (Poresky et al., 1988a,b; Melson,
1988; Melson et al., 1991).
Numerous studies have investigated the influence of compan-
ion animals on the social and emotional development of children,
but few have investigated their influence on the cognitive develop-
ment. Poresky et al. (1987) found that improved cognitive develop-
ment was associated with the bond between children and
companion animals. It has been suggested that companion animal
ownership may facilitate language acquisition and enhance verbal
skills in children. This would occur as a result of the companion
animal functioning both as a patient recipient of the young child’s
babble and as an attractive verbal stimulus, eliciting communica-
tion from the child in the form of praise, orders, encouragement,
Are there reasons why the interaction with animals could influ-
ence the cognitive development? Hatano and Inagaki (1993) indi-
cated that a living animal presents ‘inherently occurring variations
in its critical parameters’. Or, in other words, animals are ‘predictably
unpredictable’ (Melson, 2003). To the observing child, animal
behaviour embodies what Piaget (1969) argues is the engine of
all learning, namely, cognitive incongruity, moderate discrepancy
from established schema, and novel information. Moreover, for
many children, companion animals are likely to be powerful moti-
vators for learning, for at least two well-established reasons: (1)
children learn and retain more about subjects in which they are
emotionally invested (Hatano and Inagaki, 1993) and (2) children’s
learning is optimised when it occurs within meaningful relation-
ships (Vygotsky, 1978).
Research on cognitive development has also been done in the
field of AAA/AAT programmes. Companion animals (as well as dol-
phins) have been used to increase children’s concentration span
and as a motivator to help children learn. Some people with severe
disabilities have a problem with concentration rather than with
the processing of information. Nathanson et al. (1997) found that
such individuals could concentrate better when they worked with
dolphins because they were interested in the dolphin. Moreover,
they were also more motivated to learn because they were re-
warded with being allowed to play and swim with the dolphin.
This way of learning was facilitated by the dolphins and, according
to Nathanson (1998), was 2–10 times more effective than tradi-
tional forms of therapy. However, no real evidence has yet been of-
fered to support these hypotheses (Marino and Lilienfeld, 2007).
More research is needed to find out whether companion animals
can also influence cognitive development.
The advent of scientific medicine toward the end of the 19th
century had the effect of displacing companion animals from ther-
apeutic settings. Freud (1959) saw animal images as the uncontrol-
lable impulses as a threat of the human ego, and Shafton (1995)
stated that mental illness was (in the opinion of Freud) a result
when bottled-up animal drives found no healthy or creative outlet
and erupt uncontrollably into consciousness.
One of the first researchers to study the interaction between
children and companion animals was Boris Levinson (1969). As a
psychotherapist he did several case studies, although his fellow
psychologists were not very enthusiastic about the idea that ani-
mals could help children in their development (Kruger and Serpell,
2006). Companion animals were seen as inferior replacements for
human social interactions. However, since the mid-1980s, and at
least partly in response to the scepticism of the medical establish-
ment, the theoretical emphasis has shifted away from these rela-
tively metaphysical ideas about animals as psycho-spiritual
mediators toward more prosaic, scientifically ‘respectable’ expla-
nations for the apparent therapeutic benefits of animal compan-
ionship (Serpell, 2000).
Today, more and more animals are being introduced to individ-
uals struggling with a malady in nursing homes or hospitals. This is
known as Animal Assisted Activities (AAA). The emphasis is on
recreational activities in contrast to AAT, in which an animal is
included in the treatment plan. Generally, AAT involves a creden-
tialed treatment provider who guides interactions between a
patient and an animal to achieve specific goals (Chandler, 2005).
So, the introduction of an animal is designed to accomplish prede-
fined outcomes believed to be difficult to achieve otherwise or
outcomes best addressed through exposure to an animal.
AAT has been practiced for many years and there is now
increasing interest in establishing its efficacy (Barker, 1999; Nimer
and Lundahl, 2007). AAT has been applied in a variety of healthcare
settings. It has been used as an adjunct to physical therapy, with
patients being asked to walk a dog, pet or brush a cat, or play fetch
with a dog; i.e. activities designed to increase muscle strength and
improve control of fine motor skills (Chandler, 2005). For example,
a child might be encouraged to gently pet and talk to an animal to
teach appropriate touch, reduce anxiety, increase a sense of con-
nection to a living being, reduce loneliness, and develop a variety
of skills (Chandler, 2005; Delta Society, 2006).
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AAT has been applied to a wide variety of clinical problems,
such as autistic spectrum symptoms (Redefer and Goodman,
1989), medical conditions (Havenar et al., 2001), compromised
mental functioning (Kanamori et al., 2001), emotional difficulties
(Barker and Dawson, 1998), undesirable behaviours (Nagengast
et al., 1997), and physical problems (Nathanson et al., 1997). The
use of an animal in therapy may be beneficial because animals
seem to have a natural tendency to create a bond with people (Olb-
rich and Otterstedt, 2003). Animals may promote a warm and safe
atmosphere that can be independently therapeutic and help clients
accept interventions offered by the treatment provider. AAT is not
generally viewed as a stand-alone treatment but rather animals are
used as a supplement or in conjunction with other interventions.
AAT has been used with individuals across the lifespan, including
children, adolescents, adults, and the elderly. However, not much
research has been done to identify which animals can be used with
which type of psychological problems (Serpell et al., 2006).
The delivery of AAT varies according to the type of animal in-
volved (such as dogs, horses etc.), the setting in which it is deliv-
ered (such as inpatient or outpatient environment, medical clinic,
short- or long-term facility), the duration of the intervention
(short- or long-term), and whether the intervention is delivered
in a group or individual format. Some investigations have used rig-
orous methodology, using randomised designs comparing AAT
with control groups or established treatments (such as recreational
therapy), whilst others have used simple pre-/post-test designs
(Nimer and Lundahl, 2007).
A well designed study in the field of AAT was done by Berget
et al. (2008) on adults with psychiatric disorders. It was a random-
ized controlled trial with follow-up. Two-thirds of the patients
(n = 60) were given a 12-week intervention with farm animals. It
was found that AAT with farm animals may have positive influ-
ences on self-efficacy and coping ability among psychiatric pa-
tients with long lasting psychiatric symptoms. No changes were
found in quality of life.
The same is true of the study done by Antonioli and Reveley
(2005) on the influence of dolphins on depression. This was a sin-
gle blind, randomised, controlled trial done with 30 patients ran-
domly assigned to two groups, one experimental and one control.
The experimental group interacted with the dolphins for 2 weeks,
every day for one hour. The control group was assigned to an out-
door nature programme featuring the same water activities as the
animal care programme but in the absence of dolphins, to control
for the influence of water and other, non-specific, environmental
factors. The therapy with the dolphins was effective in alleviating
symptoms of depression.
But in AAT/AAA the welfare of the animal has to be taken into
consideration. Unfortunately until now not much research has
been done on this topic and there is no systematic assessment of
the potential threats to the welfare of the animals (Serpell et al.,
2006). Haubenhofer and Kirchengast (2006, 2007) found that AAT
had an influence on the cortisol levels of dogs but further research
has to be done to find out whether these physiological responses
are indicative of potentially negative stress or of positive excite-
ment (Haubenhofer and Kirchengast, 2006). Other research has
indicated that workload, inadequate environmental conditions
and client age, might all contribute to an increase in a dog’s stress
level (Marinelli et al., 2009). This is also true for dolphins, apart
from the fact that dolphins are large, strong, wild animals and
are unpredictable, even when well-trained (Williamson, 2008).
Companion animals can contribute to the psychological health
of children and adults (Wells, 2009). Social contacts will be im-
proved when walking a dog (Wells, 2004). Especially for individu-
als with disabilities a service dog can be very important, not just
for helping this person but to normalize interactions with other
people (Guest et al., 2006). Reviews have been published about
the influence of companion animal ownership and human, adults
as well as children’s, health (McNicholas et al., 2005; Barker and
Wolen, 2008). It was found that companion animal owners had a
higher survival rate from myocardial infarction, a significantly low-
er use of general practitioner services, a reduced risk of asthma and
allergic rhinitis in children exposed to companion animal allergens
during the first year of life, a reduced risk of cardiovascular disease
and better physical and psychological well-being in community
dwelling older people. However recent studies have not always
replicated these benefits. Conflicting findings may be explained
by confounding variables that have not been controlled for in sev-
eral studies. It is important to investigate mediating variables that
may play a role in the physiological benefits of companion animal
So, studies are not unanimous in their findings on the influence
of companion animals on the development of children, with some
workers showing the presence of an association and others not. It
is unclear whether this association, if present, is due to pre-exist-
ing differences in the types of family that choose to have compan-
ion animals versus those that do not, or the types of children who
form bonds with companion animals versus those who do not. Re-
search has shown that when the family climate is empathic and
supportive, children are better able to receive the support of ani-
mals (Bryant and Whorley, 1989). In other words, socially oriented,
empathic children are more likely to bond with their companion
animals, and socially oriented, empathic parents may be more
likely to get companion animals for their children (Faber Taylor
and Kuo, 2006). Whether or not there are negative consequences
in living together with companion animals, other than zoonoses
(Overgaauw et al., 2009), allergic reactions (Anyo et al., 2002),
and (fatal) injuries because of bite incidences (Sacks et al., 1996)
is to date unknown.
Children growing up with companion animals generally show
higher levels of self-esteem, empathy, and responsibility, and de-
velop into socially more competent adults than children who do
not grow up with companion animals (for review, see Endenburg
and Baarda, 1995). However, in these studies the family environ-
ment can never be excluded as a confounding variable. Potentially,
the ‘social climate’ in families with companion animals may be dif-
ferent to that in families without companion animals. This makes
the causal effects of parenting style on the development of children
difficult to disentangle from the contribution made by companion
animals (Kotrschal and Ortbauer, 2003). What is needed is random
assignment of participants to conditions rather than participant-
selected assignment to conditions (Wilson and Barker, 2003).
The problem is that a causal relationship cannot be established
because it is unclear whether empathic people obtain companion
animals or whether owning a companion animal makes a person
more empathic. Because of the nature of the independent variable,
owning a companion animal or not, research in this field cannot be
truly experimental (Van Houtte and Jarvis, 1995). Because most
published studies are correlational, longitudinal studies are needed
to establish causality, but so far these are rare (Endenburg and
Baarda, 1995; Wilson and Barker, 2003). The concern about corre-
lational types of studies is the tendency to ascribe causality to rela-
tionships between variables
Longitudinal studies are also needed because not much is known
about the effects of animals over a longer period of time.
The same is true for studies of AAA/AAT. Lack of financial sup-
port has meant that only small convenience samples have been
used in the few studies performed so far. Moreover, while qualita-
tive reviews are helpful in detecting patterns, such reviews are
(Wilson and Barker,2003).
N. Endenburg, H.A. van Lith/The Veterinary Journal 190 (2011) 208–214
Author's personal copy
limited because of their subjective quality and inability to test
hypotheses (Wilson and Barker, 2003). Furthermore, little atten-
tion has been paid to animal welfare aspects. There is a need for
studies of the possible health effects that people have on animals,
for studies that look at the animal side of the human bond (Beck
and Katcher, 2003), as well as how the welfare of animals can be
protected in the best possible way.
Further work is required to identify which animals are best sui-
ted for particular types of problems. Are certain farm animals, say
pigs, better to work with children who suffer from attention deficit
hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)? What are the advantages (and dis-
advantages) of different animals? To date not much is known
Although most studies performed to date had methodological
weaknesses, the pattern of findings points in the same direction
and persists across different sub-populations of children and dif-
ferent settings, namely, that companion animals can promote
healthy child development. The studies described here are not
unanimous in their findings regarding the influence of companion
animals on the development of children, but the pattern points in
the same direction and indicates that companion animals can pro-
mote healthy child development. In the future, longitudinal studies
will be necessary to establish causality and the possible influence
of the family climate.
Conflict of interest statement
None of the authors of this paper has a financial or personal
relationship with other people or organisation that could inappro-
priately influence or bias the content of the paper.
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