Running Head: CHILD DEVELOPMENT AND HCAB
Child Development and the Human Companion Animal Bond
Gail F. Melson
Companion animals are more common in households with minor children than in any
other household type. Over 70% of U. S. households with children also have pets,1 with
most parents reporting acquisition of an animal “for the children.” Yet, studies of
children’s development largely have been limited to children’s relationships with other
humans. This paper argues for a biocentric approach to development, in which children’s
contacts with the nonhuman world—animals, plants, and natural ecologies—come under
scientific scrutiny. To understand the developmental significance of this ubiquitous
aspect of children’s environments, theory and research on companion animals in relation
to perceptual, cognitive, social and emotional development are reviewed and evaluated.
The significance of children’s encounters with animals, especially in the context of a
human-companion animal bond, is emphasized. Biocentric research directions are
Child Development and the Human Companion Animal Bond
When the children were changing the water of the goldfish, Frank had a sudden impulse
of cruelty, and said to the others, “Shall we stamp on it?”…Before she [the teacher] could
stop them, they had thrown the fish out into the sand and stamped on it. They stood
round and looked at it, rather excited, and obviously wishing they hadn’t done it, and
Frank said, “Now let’s put it into water, and then it’ll come alive again.” (Isaacs, 1930,
Raymond put on his blue-jean pants as he stood by the bed. Honey, Raymond’s fat,
broad, elderly fox terrier, ambled into the room. Raymond greeted her in a sleepy but
friendly voice. “Hi, Honey.” Honey put her front paws on Raymond’s knees. He
scratched her back and patted her as he finished buckling his belt. (Barker & Wright,
1951, p. 18)
Drew: “You know what?” Mr. Lloyd: “Hmm?” Drew: “I have a turtle except it died.”
Mr. Lloyd: “Why did it die?” Drew: “It wasn’t eating its food, turtle food.” (Myers,
1998, p. 56).
In the quotations above, spanning almost seventy years, scholars of child
development observed naturally occurring encounters between children and companion
animals. In the first quote, Susan Isaacs, a British psychoanalyst, described a group of
preschool children in her nursery school as they learned, the hard way, about the needs of
fish. The second quote comes from One Boy’s Day, by the Americans Roger Barker and
Herbert Wright, pioneers of ecological psychology, who demonstrated their method of
behavioral observation within natural settings by meticulously recording every waking
moment in a single day (April 26, 1949) in the life of seven year old Raymond living
with his parents and dog Honey in a small Midwestern town. In the third quote, Gene
Myers, a contemporary environmental psychologist, sensitively recorded a group of
preschoolers for a year as they interacted with, looked at, and thought about animals.
These three accounts are exemplary, but they are not common. By and large,
scholars of child development have ignored or, at best, slighted children’s relationships
with companion animals. This is surprising, for several reasons. First, companion
animals are hardly a rare phenomenon; a recent survey by the American Veterinary
Medical Association reported that 70 percent of all households with children under six
years of age and 78% of all households with children over six had pets (AVMA, 1997).
(Similar percentages are reported in countries of Western Europe.) Moreover, pets are
more likely to be found in households with minor children than in any other household
type2. Companion animals and children literally go together; their co-occurrence within
households raises the question of what, if any, influence each might have on the other.
Secondly, the theoretical paradigms currently dominating the study of child development
emphasize the importance of studying children within their naturally occurring
environments, as Barker and Wright had urged over fifty years ago. For example,
Bronfenbrenner’s (1979) widely adopted ecological systems framework stresses that
individual characteristics of children interact with multiple interrelated settings, such as
family, school, peer groups, neighborhoods, communities, and society, and urges detailed
examination of environmental characteristics and children’s interactions with them.
Dynamic systems theory (Thelen, 2000), relationship psychology (Fogel, 1993), and
attachment theory (Bowlby, 1969) all situate children’s development within the context
of important relationship bonds. Presumably, these theoretical orientations would have
led to studies of the non-human companions who are present in the majority of children’s
environments, yet, with a few exceptions (see, in particular Bryant, 1985 and Myers,
1998), scholars have restricted their inquiries to human relationships.
Elsewhere (Melson, 2001) I have argued that this anthropocentric, or human only,
focus has impeded both theory and research into the developmental significance of
animals, especially companion animals, for children. However, a small but growing
group of developmentalists (Kahn, 1999; Myers, 1998) has been urging a “biocentric”
approach to child development. Such an approach assumes that children will exhibit
interest in and involvement with non-human as well as human aspects of their
environments. Consistent with the biophilia hypothesis (Kellert, 1997; Wilson, 1984),
which posits that humans have adapted to be attentive to life forms, children are expected
to show particular interest in living non-humans, especially other animals.3
To demonstrate the usefulness of such an approach, I will briefly describe how
considering children’s connections with companion animals can enrich understanding of
children’s perceptual, cognitive, social, and emotional development. Where possible, I
will draw on empirical research that helps document this claim. However, because of the
anthropocentric focus described earlier, the research base is inadequate for most
generalizations about children’s relationships with companion animals. Noting this, I
will hypothesize about potential developmental significance in areas not fully
investigated to date, and suggest fruitful research avenues for future study. I conclude
with some cautions that point to the challenges inherent in biocentric studies of
Although most studies of pets in the children’s lives have understandably focused
on social and emotional aspects, there are intriguing indications that companion animals
also may play a role in perceptual, cognitive, and language development. Therefore, I
begin with these more speculative areas.
Perceptual and cognitive development
The great scholar Eleanor Gibson’s work on perceptual development (1988)
provides a starting point. In her theory of perceptual affordances, infants extract
knowledge through looking at, hearing, feeling, tasting, and acting on objects, thereby
discovering what objects “afford,” or the “what-can-I-do-with-this?” of things. During
the first year of life (precisely when is still debated), infants distinguish between the
movement of living beings and the movement of inanimate objects. For example, seven
month olds register a surprised expression if they see an inanimate object, like a block of
wood, appear to move without any force applied to it, but they are not surprised when a
person initiates movement (Spelke, Phillips, & Woodward, 1995). (This study has not
been replicated with a moving non-human animal.) In Gibson’s terms, living beings, such
as a live cat, have fundamentally different affordances than do objects like a stuffed toy
cat of the same size and shape.
There is some evidence that the affordances of companion animals are
perceptually interesting to young children, sustain their attention, and motivate their
curiosity. Aline Kidd and Robert Kidd, who have extensively studied children and their
pets, compared how infants and toddlers, ranging from six- to thirty months of age,
behaved toward their pet dogs and cats as compared with a “lifelike” battery-operated toy
dog and toy cat. The babies smiled, held, followed, and made sounds to the live animals,
especially the dogs, more than to the toy ones (Kidd & Kidd, 1987). In another study,
which, unlike that of the Kidds, controlled for the novelty of objects, nine-month olds
approached, touched, and looked at a live dwarf rabbit more than a female adult stranger
or a wooden turtle that moved, made noises, and flashed lights (Ricard & Allard, 1992).
As a final illustration of the affordances of living animals, consider the findings of
Nielsen and Delude (1989), who observed how two- to six-year olds in their day care or
kindergarten classrooms responded to a variety of live animals—a Mexican red-legged
tarantula, a two-and-a-half-month-old English angora rabbit, a mature cockatiel, and a
five-year-old female golden retriever dog—as well as two realistic stuffed plush animals
—a dog and a bird. The children ignored the stuffed animals (80% never looked at them),
but the live animals, especially the dog and bird, were powerful stimuli. Seventy-four
percent touched the dog, which was in a sit-stay position, and 21% kissed the dog. Over
two thirds talked to the bird.
The perceptually intriguing affordances of living animals may well stimulate
children’s learning, particularly about the characteristics and needs of animals (including
other humans and themselves), or what psychologists term “naïve biology” (Carey,
1985). In support of this, Japanese kindergarteners caring for pet goldfish, as compared
with their classmates, better understood unobservable goldfish biology, as shown by their
more accurate answers to questions like: “Does a goldfish have a heart?” The goldfish
raisers also reasoned more accurately about other species, using analogies from goldfish
care. One child explained that a baby frog could not stay the same size forever since “the
frog will grow bigger as my goldfish got bigger.” (Hatano & Inagaki, 1993). Although
this study did not measure the relation between goldfish raising and understanding of
death, it is possible that caring for companion animals promotes more elaborated and
more accurate ideas about life and death.
Why do companion animals, indeed all animals, present such good learning
opportunities? In the words of Hatano and Inagaki (1993, p. 126) a living animal
presents “inherently occurring variations in its critical parameters.” In other words,
animals are predictably unpredictable. To the observing child, animal behavior embodies
what Piaget (1969) argues is the engine of all learning: cognitive incongruity, moderate
discrepancy from established schema, and novel information. Moreover, for many
children, companion animals are likely to be powerful motivators for learning, for at least
two well-established reasons: (a) children learn and retain more about subjects in which
they are emotionally invested4; and (b) children’s learning is optimized when it occurs
within meaningful relationships (Vygotsky, 1978).
Social and emotional development
Most research and theoretical attention to companion animals in the lives of
children has focused on these domains of development. Considerable evidence
documents that companion animals are important affective ties that many children rank
among their most intimate (Melson, 2001). For example, when asked to name the ten
most important individuals in their lives, seven- and ten-year olds, included on average
two pets (Bryant, 1985). Establishing the importance of companion animal ties is an
essential precondition to exploring their functions for socio-emotional development. To
illustrate, below, I briefly review two functions, social support and nurturance.
Social support: Hundreds of studies identify lack of human social support as a
significant risk factor for physical and psychological problems, especially for vulnerable
groups of children and adults (Cohen & McKay, 1984). There is evidence that many pet-
owning children derive emotional support from their pets. In a sample of seven- and ten-
year olds in California, Bryant (1985) found that pet owners were as likely to talk to their
pets about sad, angry, happy, and secret experiences as with their siblings. In interviews
with a sample of Michigan ten- to fourteen year olds, 75% said that when upset, they
turned to their pets (Covert, et. al., 1985). In a study of 68 five year olds in Indiana, all
about to enter public schooling, 42% spontaneously mentioned a pet when asked: “Who
do you turn to when you are feeling sad, angry, happy, or wanting to share a
secret?”(Melson & Schwarz, 1994).
Children appear to discriminate among the support provisions of different
relationships; when comparing parents, friends, and pets, elementary school children
considered ties with pets most likely to last “no matter what” and “even if you get mad at
each other” (Furman, 1989). In an indication that using pet support may have adaptive
value, parents of those five-year-olds who turned to their pets for support rated them as
less anxious and withdrawn, as compared with same age children who did not use pet
support, but had pets available within their homes (Melson & Schwarz, 1994).
Nurturance: Since pets are dependent upon human care for survival and optimal
development, companion animals provide children the opportunity to learn about,
practice, and become motivated to appropriately nurture another being. Elsewhere (Fogel
& Melson, 1986), my colleagues and I have argued that the development of nurturance is
an important underpinning for effective parenting, non-family child care, and care giving
of elderly and persons with disabilities or illnesses. Importantly, from age three, both
boys and girls perceive nurturing human young as gender-linked, or in the words of one
preschooler, “a mommy thing.”(Melson, 2001; Melson, Fogel, & Toda, 1986). However,
children view caring for pets, such as dogs and cats, as gender-neutral (Melson & Fogel,
1989). Consistent with these perceptions, boys engage in less, girls in more, baby and
child care with age; by contrast, both boys and girls similarly maintain consistent, high
levels of pet care as they develop. For example, according to parent reports, the amount
of time children devote to pet care and play with pets increases steadily with age from
five- to twelve years of age, while sibling care time correspondingly declines. As a
result, twelve-year olds are spending more time caring for pets than caring for younger
siblings, when both are present in their families (Melson & Fogel, 1996). Another study
found that 75% of eight- to ten-year olds had sole or shared responsibility for pet care,
and 92% felt that caring for their pets was an “important” or “very important” part of
their relationship with the animal (Rost & Hartmann, 1987).
If as Robert Weiss (1974) suggests, the opportunity to nurture others is a basic
human need, even in childhood, pets may play a compensatory role in providing this
outlet for only or youngest children. In support of this, we have found that pet owning
children without younger siblings spend more time in pet care and play than do their
counterparts with younger brothers or sisters (Melson & Fogel, 1996).
There is no consistent evidence that nurturing pets generalizes to more sensitive
care giving of humans. In a retrospective survey of British university students, greater
involvement caring for pets during childhood was related only to more humane attitudes
toward pet and non-pet animals and more concerns about animal welfare (Paul & Serpell,
1993). However, a first- and fourth-grade classroom intervention designed to teach more
appropriate, humane forms of nurturing produced greater empathy toward other children
as well as more humane attitudes toward animals (Ascione, 1992). Consistent with this,
five- and six-year olds more attached to their pets expressed greater empathy toward
peers (Melson, Peet, & Sparks, 1992), while seven- and ten-year olds who report more
“intimate talks” with pets also report more empathy (Bryant, 1985). Since empathy, or
the ability to understand and share the feelings of another, is a necessary (although not
sufficient) condition for nurturance, these findings should encourage further inquiry into
links between nurturing pets and human relationships.
As noted earlier, research on children and companion animals is limited in both
quantity and quality. With few exceptions, studies are correlational, leaving many
confounds in any obtained relationship, and preventing any causal conclusions. Take the
association between human-directed empathy and attachment to pets, noted above.
Parents may obtain pets for children who are already empathic. Highly empathic children
may have greater skill at bonding with an animal (as well as a person).
Another issue is the lack of research that integrates assessment of relationships
with both humans and animals. For example, contemporary studies of children’s social
support continue to ask only about those “people” who are important to the child, while
research on the human-companion animal bond restricts its inquiry to support derived
from pets. This separation of scholarship on human from human-animal relationships
prevents scholars from investigating whether, for example, pet support might compensate
for, amplify, or be unconnected to human support.
A third concern is the tendency to examine either presumably positive aspects of
children’s relationships with their pets, such as attachment to one’s pet, or less frequently,
negative aspects (cruelty toward animals, for example) (Ascione, 1993), without
integrating both dimensions within the same study. An exception is Ascione, who, with
colleagues, has developed an interview protocol to gather information on both
maltreatment of and kindness toward animals (Ascione, Thompson, & Black, 1997).
When scholars inquire about multiple facets of child-pet relationships, they uncover
considerable complexity. Children report both benefits and “costs” (for example, distress
over a missing animal) to pet ownership (Bryant, 1990); similarly, they readily identify
things they like and don’t like about their pet.
Finally, particularly when children are studied, the child-pet relationship should
be viewed systemically, since family dynamics, particularly parent-child relationships,
always modify and shape children’s other relationships. Because the overwhelming
majority of pet owners identifies their animals as “family members,” the insights of
family systems theory is useful to examine how pets alter (and are altered by) family
dynamics. A study by Ann Cain (1985) offers intriguing hints of what we might find. Her
interviews contain many examples of both adults and children “triangling” pets, that is,
deflecting to pets or routing through pets emotion and communication intended for other
human family members. For example, a mother is angry at her daughter, but yells at the
dog instead; a father talks to the cat so that his son can overhear, saying things he would
not say directly to the child. Other aspects of pets within the family system are ripe for
investigation. Children may cast their pets as functional younger siblings, as peer
playmates, as their own “children” or even, as a security providing attachment figure.
In sum, there is enough existing research to argue for expansion of scholarship on
children’s environments to include non-human animals (as well as plants and natural
ecologies). A biocentric account of children’s development considers children’s
experiences with all living things, particularly animals, as well as humans. Such an
account is yet to be written, but exploration of the significant ties of children with their
pets is an excellent starting point.
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1 I use the terms “companion animals” and “pets” interchangeably, although their meaning varies slightly. The former
term more readily includes horses kept for recreational and companionship purposes. In these contexts, horses are not
commonly referred to as “pets.”
2 Estimates of non-humans residing in households are more unreliable than estimates of humans because national census
taking within the U.S. and other countries collects data only on humans.
3 Humans are of course animals, but following customary usage and for clarity, I refer to all non-human animals as
“animals” and to human animals as “humans.”
4 In the only study demonstrating this point with companion animals, Inagaki showed that Japanese six-year-olds who
cared for pet goldfish at home had more knowledge about the biology of animals than did age mates whose teachers
assigned them to care for classroom rabbits and ducks (Hatano & Inagaki, 1993).