Connection between pets and children | Sunday Observer

Connection between pets and children

16 January, 2022

In the past, animals were raised for a variety of reasons, such as hunting, security, access to food, and transportation. But in today’s world, the past situation is slowly disappearing and there is a growing tendency to keep pets.

Animals were considered deities in various cultivations in the early days. Nowadays, pets can be found in almost every home. Dogs, cats, and fish are often kept as pets in Sri Lankan homes. Today, we can see several pets in one house. Children are more interested in keeping animals as their pets. There is a connection between pets and children.

Dr. Miyuru Chandradasa

In an interview with the Sunday Observer, Dr. Miyuru Chandradasa, Child and Adolescent Psychiatrist Consultant in Colombo North Teaching Hospital, Ragama, who is also a Senior Lecturer at the Faculty of Medicine at the University of Kelaniya and the Secretary of the Sri Lanka College of Child and Adolescent Psychiatrists explained the connection between pets and children.


Q: Can you explain the connection between pets and children?

A: Pets are very good listeners. If a child has a problem or is feeling stressed, they may want to tell someone else, but telling her or his parents or another adult may be problematic because the child may not understand how the parents or an adult may understand what they say, or they may believe that if they say something to the parents or adults, they will receive disapproval. But the pet doesn’t say that you should stop talking or that it is not true or anything like that. So the child can communicate with the pet.

They can communicate with pets directly through words, like they can actually talk to a dog or a cat. If it is especially a dog, it gives a lot of facial expressions. The dog looks at child’s eyes, and the dog is a good listener. Children can talk and even though the pets don’t fully understand, the pets have the ability to recognise emotions in humans. When the owner is sad or distressed, the pet can understand that their owner is sad or angry. They may act appropriately.

For example, if a child is crying, the pet (which may be a cat or a dog) may come up to them and sit close to them. If the child isn’t communicating with words, the child can communicate by touch with the pet. If a child is sad or angry, he can touch the pet, and the pet may return the touch or approach him.

It is easier for a child to make an emotional relationship or emotional connection with a pet because the pet is a good listener and pets are not judgmental. A parent or an adult may take judgment on what the child says, but the pet is a neutral person. Pet does not pass judgment. This is why it is easier to build an emotional connection with a pet.

Q: Why are children interested in pets?

A: One thing is that a pet is a play companion. The child’s parents may not have the same physical energy as the child, to play with the child. but the pet, especially if it is a dog, will usually have lots of energy to play with the child. The child’s energy levels are matched by the pets, because they will not be matched by the mother or father.

The second thing is that when children are playing with the pet, they can dominate the play. If a child is playing cricket with their father, the father will dominate. It’s easy for them to play with a pet because children know they have control. They can dominate what the pets can do.

Children like imagination. Because they like imagination, they will imagine the pet may be the pet of someone else. For example, they may imagine that pets may have super powers, so they may have called the pet “super dog” or something like that, and they will think that the pet is the super hero and it is their assistant, such as Bat and Robbin. I’m the Batman, and this dog is Robbin. Like that, they will incorporate their imaginary figures into their pets. It becomes a very happy and imaginary world for them.

Children are looked after by the parents. The child may feel that he or she is looking after the pet. It’s like now they have more control, like the parents look after them. I have to listen to my parents. Now I look after pets, so they have to listen to me. Even though a cat or a dog may not follow their instructions, they can talk to them and say that you have to sit, stand, and do these things, and it feels like they have more control over their pets because they are the owners.

Children feel that they own something valuable. It’s more than a toy, more than a book, because books have to be read and carried to school, and children think sometimes the toys have actual life. But a pet is more than a toy. Because it is something that a child feels are its own. So because of that, children may demand that they have pets. When children go to school and then their friends say, “I have a pet,” the children may also go back home and say they also need a pet. When friends say good things about pets, they also need a pet to feel like that.

Q: What are the psychological benefits we can get from pets?

A: Having a pet is healthy for the development of empathy. Empathy means our ability to recognise our emotions, emotions in others, and make an appropriate response. If we feel someone is sad, to make them comfortable, we may say things like, “I can feel that you look sad and can I give you a glass of water,” which is empathy. Having a pet is very advantageous for developing empathy, because a good human being has empathy. In our society, we are very competitive with each other because of our exam-driven education system; we are not empathetic towards others.

For example, when on the road, we don’t allow other vehicles to take over us. When we are in the bank, and if we are in a queue, we are not allowed to come and sit in front of us. Empathy is lacking in us because our system is so competitive since we have few resources. The development of empathy is very important for children through pets.

The pet functions as a form of a counsellor. One essential part of a counsellor’s job is listening. We can ventilate our emotions and the counsellor will listen. That gives us some relief. If a child has experienced abuse, violence, or harassment from others, he or she can talk to the pet. The pet is a very trustworthy person because the pet is not going to give the child’s information to someone else. If you tell a person, he or she may go and tell others. But pets are not like that. It allows for the ventilation of emotions and reduces stress.

The pet allows children to be responsible for the first time in their life. They were previously looked after by others. But now a child is looking after a live thing. It feels as if it is his own pet. Giving food, giving a bath, looking after them and cuddling them gives a sense of responsibility. That’s also a benefit for children.

Many children like to play video games, watch tabs or watch YouTube videos, but the pet will not like that. The pet will like to go out, and it will help the child to go outside and play outside. It will be good for them to have that connection with nature. It will prevent childhood obesity and allied problems. They will be healthier when they are playing outside with the pet. For example, if the parents say, “Stop watching the phone and go outside and play,” the children may not agree, but if the pet is outside, the children may want to go out and play with the pet.

If a child has a pet, he may learn to respect others. But parents have more power than children. But the pet is someone the child is looking after.

If an unfortunate incident occurs; when the pets die, since cats and dogs live for a limited number of years, during childhood the children may have several pets, so when a pet dies, it is a learning opportunity to learn grief. Bereavement means when we lose someone we love. When a pet dies, we experience grief. That is the physiological response to a loss. Grieving is akin to learning to bear the loss of a loved one. It’s a very good learning experience. It can be helpful in learning about grief.

They can also learn about loyalty. Cats are not very loyal, but dogs are. When we are coming in front of the dog, it is wagging its tail. When they are at home, the dog is supposed to be with the child rather than be with someone else. That is loyalty towards the child. The importance of loyalty is being loyal to our family, to our friends, and trusting them.

Q: Are there any bad effects to keeping a pet?

A: There can be bad effects if the parents don’t choose the correct pet. They have to consider certain things before they choose a pet for a child. The first thing is that the size of the pet should be appropriate for the child’s size. For example, parents usually buy dogs of certain dog types where they grow very fast. When a child asks for a puppy, parents buy a puppy for the child. But later, the puppy grows faster than the child. It’s very dangerous. Sometimes, by stepping on their legs, pets may bite the child. The size should be appropriate for the child’s size.

The second thing is that parents need to know the nature of the child. If a child is impulsive, hyperactive, or rude, then parents should not buy an active dog. If a child is hyperactive, he or she tries to get on the dog, push the pet, or otherwise annoy the pets. Then the pets may attack the child again. It’s good to bring a calm pet like a fish for hyperactive and impulsive children. Fish are not going to attack.

The third thing is that when we get a pet, we have to name it something unique. Usually in the clinic, when we ask the children, “what is the pet you have, and what is the name of your pet?” The children reply, “My pet’s name is Kitty.”

As a result, all of the Sri Lankan cats are kittens. There isn’t a uniqueness to a pet. We have to make children feel that the pet they own is unique. Parents should encourage the child to have a unique name for the pet. By the name the child has given to his or her pet uniqueness. Then we can understand how emotionally and intellectually the child is.

It’s unethical to have a large pet in a small space because the pet needs a large space to run around, and the parents have to consider the space available and the safety of the children.

Q:Why do children feel extremely sad when their pets die?

A: Obviously, the reason is that they develop a very strong emotional relationship with the pets. A pet becomes a part of the family, like another family member. So when the pet dies, they experience grief. They feel sad and worried. But it is a good learning experience for them to understand what a loss is and how to overcome it.

Q: What can we do to balance the bond between pets and children?

A: If the child is cruel to the pet, the pet should be immediately removed.

The parents and the adults in the household should be respectful of the pets as well. For example, they should never hit the pet or be cruel to the pet. For example, when we go to work and come back to the home, and we see the pet is coming to us and the child is also nearby, we should not chase the dog.

We should greet the pet like he is also a family member. The child also learns how to be respectful of the pets. Parents need to be role models in front of the children, being kind and loving and caring for the pets. That’s how we can help to enhance the relationship between the child and the pet.