Why family pets are important

Dara Squires
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More than half of Canadian families are blessed with critters – that is, they have pets such as cats, dogs, birds, etc. We have an etcetera … a pet rabbit. My daughter’s father gave her a beautiful bunny boy for her birthday and she has fallen in love.

I grew up with pet rabbits and had a few doubts about how suitable a rabbit would be for her, given her overly attentive nature. However Fou Fou has adapted quite well to being carried everywhere, fed from her hand, cuddled incessantly, and, yes, even dressed in doll’s clothes.

Her brothers are now clamoring for their own small pets as well. I imagine we’ll soon be a household with more critters than people at this rate. We had the privilege recently of attending an event at Chapters in St. John’s where the Small Animal and Bird Rescue brought some of their adoptable critters. I may have fallen in love with a couple of rats … and then, of course, there’s the fish we’ll be adding, and my youngest son’s snail terrarium, their pet dog that lives with their father, and probably another bunny … or two.

Since taking over care of the bunny my daughter has not been responsible enough to learn to stop leaving it on her bed where it pees on her bedsheets and poops on her Barbie clothes, but she has learned to care for another creature. She checks each night that it has fresh water, reminds me to clean the cage, saves vegetable and fruit scraps for it, and spends a lot of time worrying about whether it feels loved enough.

Teaching responsibility is one big justification many families use for adding pets. They think being given the care, or at least part of it, for a small animal will encourage their child to learn how to complete chores and focus on the needs of others.

That is certainly one very desirable side-effect of pet ownership for children. Even very young children can participate by helping to fill water bowls, feed fish, or pick up pet toys.

But teaching responsibility is not really the main benefit of having a pet. Any adult with a pet will tell you that the companionship is the real reason to have a pet. According to the Ontario Veterinary Medical Association, 94% of pet owners speak to their pets as though they are human and a roughly equal number believe their pets are aware of their moods and emotions.

Sometimes ... we forget that learning includes more than science, reading and math skills.

The same is true for children with pets. And these relationships and interactions with family pets can build important skills that children need for socialization and development.

It is often touted that children learn through play. This is certainly true. Sometimes, though, we forget that learning includes more than science, reading, and math skills.

Children also learn empathy, communication, perspective, emotional support and moral reasoning through play. Generally we think of this as playing with other children at or near their age. But children play with, well, everything. They play with older and younger siblings, with their parents, with the dust bunnies under their beds.

Valuable support

And they play with their pets. In fact, psychologist Gail F. Melson, in Psychology Today, reports that not only do children play with their pets, but they look at them as valuable sources of emotional support: “Children not only view pets as providing social support but also as providing sources of wellbeing, in effect making children feel good.”

Melson indicates that most children consider their pets important friends and the “person” they would pick to speak to if they were sad, upset, angry or frustrated. Children view their friendships with pets as being more stable and having more longevity than their friendships with their peers.

Judging by all the secrets my daughter whispers into Fou Fou’s oversized, furry ears, this is true in our family.  So while there may be the negatives of pee on the bedsheets and pellets under the couch as well as the positives of teaching responsibility and cleanliness, the real benefit is the companionship and experience that Fou Fou provides. My daughter is learning not only how to be a caregiver, but also how to be a friend and a support and how to rely on somebody (or somebunny, as the case may be) else to provide a positive and caring relationship.

In the end, there is nothing more important that our children’s ability to be children: to play, to learn, to grow, and to be joyous at the small things.

A pet can provide the ideal environment for children to be themselves.

Organizations: Chapters, Ontario Veterinary Medical Association

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