Caring for animals helps youngsters

Caring for an animal could help young people to achieve a boost to their wellbeing, as well as strengthening their relationships with others in their communities. This is according to a new study at Tufts University, which polled more than 500 18 to 26-year-olds about their attitudes towards and interaction with animals.

The researchers also cross-referenced these answers with measures on caring, confidence, character, levels of depression and other youth development characteristics.

It was found that those responsible for a pet were more likely to engage in contribution activities than participants who were not.  Furthermore, being attached to an animal in late adolescence and young adulthood was associated with more confidence and higher levels of empathy.

Writing in the journal Applied Developmental Science, lead author Megan Mueller said it may be the quality of the relationship with the animals that is significant as opposed to the simple presence.

"We can't draw causal links with this study but it is a promising starting point to better understanding the role of animals in our lives, especially when we are young," she added.

Dr Kate Sparks, a Chartered Psychologist, comments:

"The findings could also be explained by the effects of oxytocin - chemical released in body, with one of it's functions to increase bonding (released at time of birth to help bonding of mother with baby, for example). Oxytocin is released when we touch or stroke, for example, when relating with our pets. Hence, the bonding connection (with increased oxytocin) that the young people feel with their pets may help their confidence and relationships with other people.

The responsibility of looking after someone - pet or human - can often increase our confidence and empathy as we get direct feedback on how our actions can impact on another. There is also evidence that caring or being responsible for another when growing up - a sibling or pet - can help us cope better under pressure, being emotionally stronger as we have another life to be responsible for too.

Research on child abuse indicates that an older sibling may cope better as they have to be strong to look after the younger sibling who may also be experiencing the abuse. I have also found this link with pets too, in cases of child abuse where the pet has enabled the child to cope better with the stressful situation, both from obtaining comfort from the pet but also feeling responsible for the pet.

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