Summer 2014

Caring for Animals May Make Teens Better Adults

Pets help us feel connected to others and the world around us, study finds

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Having a pet can boost kids’ engagement with the world around them. Photo: istock

Young adults who have bonded with a pet may forge stronger social relationships and better connections to their communities, according to a Tufts study.

“Our findings suggest that it may not be whether an animal is present in an individual’s life that is most significant but rather the quality of that relationship,” says study author Megan Mueller, a developmental psychologist and research assistant professor at Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine. “The young adults in the study who had a strong attachment to pets reported feeling more connected to their communities and relationships,” she says.

For the study, published earlier this year in Applied Developmental Science, Mueller surveyed more than 500 predominately female participants, ages 18 to 26, to evaluate their attitudes about and interaction with animals.

Those who cared for animals reported engaging in more “contribution” activities, such as participating in community service, helping friends or family and demonstrating leadership than those who did not. The more actively they participated in a pet’s care, the higher their “contribution” scores.

The study also found that high levels of attachment to an animal in late adolescence and young adulthood were associated with feeling connected with other people and possessing empathy and confidence.

Mueller’s assessments were drawn from the ongoing 4-H Study of Positive Youth Development, research sponsored by the National 4-H Council in which her 500 subjects also had participated. Since 2002, the study has surveyed more than 7,000 adolescents in 42 states to determine the impact of 4-H programs on future success, from healthier lifestyle choices to academic achievement to civic engagement.

While there is mounting evidence of the positive effects of animals on children in therapeutic settings, not much is known about how everyday interactions with pets may benefit youth development.

This study cannot prove that having a pet helps children grow up to be happier and more responsible adults, but “it is a promising starting point to better understand the role of animals in our lives,” says Mueller, who holds bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees in child development from Tufts and is a faculty member at the Tisch College of Citizenship and Public Service at Tufts.

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