Humans have owned animals, especially cats and dogs, for thousands of years. At first, these animals served as practical tools; cats hunted rodents in the home, while dogs herded farm animals. However, in the last hundred years, these animals have become less like tools and more like companions. Companion animals, or any domesticated animal kept as a pet, have become important parts of the traditional family.
In recent studies, the benefits of owning a pet have been proven for a wide variety of demographics. This topic is of great importance because the implications of having a companion animal affect millions of people. According to the 2017-2018 American Pet Product National Pet Owners Survey, 68% of United States households own a pet, which equates to 84.6 million homes. Therefore, the pros and cons of having a companion animal should be known so that families can make informed decisions about whether to bring a new pet into their home. This paper will examine the roles that companion animals play in the lives of people, especially between children and adults.
In today’s world, many children are growing up alongside family pets, particularly dogs. The benefits that dogs can have on both neurotypical children and children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) have been well documented. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, about one in 59 children is diagnosed with ASD. This creates a huge demographic that could potentially benefit from pet ownership. Many families with a child who has ASD choose to bring a trained service dog into their home to serve as the child’s companion. This is because children with ASD have deficits in social skills, and one study found that interaction with service dogs can be associated with increased social skills for children with ASD (Carlisle, 2015).
Not only are service dogs beneficial for children with ASD, but also non-service dogs, as well as other species. This is because children with ASD often find it easier to interact with animals than with people due to the communication challenges that ASD presents. In another study, dimensions of pet ownership were shown to be associated with positive social-emotional adjustment among adolescents with ASD (Ward, Arola, Bohnert, & Lieb, 2017). This further informs the many benefits that pets, not just dogs, can have on children with ASD. Thus, the role of companion animals in the lives of people with ASD is a crucial one to many families.
People with ASD are not the only demographic of people which can benefit from pet ownership; families with neurotypical children have also reported positive feelings toward their companion animals. In a study consisting of observations that social workers have made on struggling families that own pets, companion animals were shown to positively affect their coping mechanisms and resiliency factors (Risely-Curtiss, 2010). This supports the idea that companion animals can have a therapeutic impact on the functioning of people of all ages and cognitive abilities. According to the National Pet Owners Survey, 95% of pet owners consider their pet to be a part of the family. Family human-animal interactions can result in such behaviors as companion animals sleeping with family members; sharing family members’ food; being confided in and read to; and having their birthdays celebrated (Risely-Curtiss, 2010). It is clear from this study how companion animals are treated like members of the family. This can positively influence human development.
Expanding on this notion, Ecological Systems Theory frames development within the context of nested relationships and systems, from immediate proximal systems to broader distal systems (Poteat, 2018b). Companion animals dwell within the microsystem, which is the most proximal system. This speaks to the importance of companion animals in the lives of people; pets dwell within the same system as family, peers, and the home. This could relate to the studies done on children with ASD by further explaining why children are able to form such tight bonds with their dogs; beyond the benefits that the dogs provide for their developing social skills, treating their dogs like members of the family allows the child to make a deep social connection.
Clearly, companion animals can benefit a variety of family demographics. However, these benefits extend beyond just the familial setting. In another study, when faced with emotional distress, neurotypical adults were more likely to turn to their dogs than they were to turn to their loved ones (Kurdek, 2009). This is because in difficult situations, pets can serve as stabilizers by offering love, affection, and unconditional acceptance (Kurdek, 2009). This supports the idea that dogs can serve as attachment figures for adults. The theory of attachment explains how we are born with innate proximity-promoting tools for staying close to attachment figures out of need for safety (Poteat, 2018a).
While attachment bonds are most commonly formed between parental and romantic relationships, dogs can provide their owners with a similar level of security and emotional support that is normally found in human attachment figures. Dogs can serve as important attachment figures for both children and adults. One aspect of this is shown when parents described their children with ASD as being deeply attached to their dogs (Carlisle, 2015). While animals of other species can serve as attachment figures as well, dogs have been the most extensively studied due to their popularity. After evaluating the previous studies, it can be argued that animal companions can serve the role of an attachment figure in the lives of many people.
While the importance of human attachment figures cannot be understated, the rise in popularity of companion animals as attachment figures could be due to the ease in which people form attachment bonds with animals. Animals, especially common household pets like cats and dogs, are friendly and crave human attention. Since pet owners feel a responsibility to care for and love their pet, this causes the attachment bond to grow quickly, somewhat like a parent would grow attached to their child. Furthermore, animals are not judgmental like humans are. This is because companion animals do not require the complex social interaction skills that maintaining relationships with humans do.
People expect that rewards are proportional to costs, and restoring psychological equity becomes a point of tension in human relationships (Poteat, 2018b). This is not necessarily a problem in human-animal interactions because there is no need to restore psychological equity. Companion animals, if well cared for, show unconditional love for their owner regardless of the values and beliefs that their owner holds. With this ease of attachment, many adults become closely bonded to their dog, as informed by Kurdek’s 2009 study. These studies, when connected across all of them, point to a few different roles that companion animals can fulfill: attachment figures, emotional support figures, friends, and family members. If a person is able to keep up with the demands of pet ownership, especially those within the demographics explored previously, the pros certainly outweigh the cons. However, it is also important to note the limitations of these studies: They all contain small sample sizes and somewhat biased selection processes. Future research should aim to combat these limitations.
This research is relevant to my own life because I have personally experienced the benefits that companion animals can have on people. As a shy child, I often found it easier to interact with my animals than with other people my age. These pets provided me with companionship throughout elementary, middle, and high school. I explored research around this topic because I am passionate about companion animals. I think that animals can positively impact people, which thus encourages people to adopt animals in need of a forever home. Additionally, in my pursuit of a career which hopefully combines both people and animals, I wish to educate myself and others on the roles that companion animals can fulfill in the lives of people across all demographics.
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