What is it about?

Many children grow up with a household pet, and often view their pet (especially pet dogs) as an integral part of the family. Research has linked pet-ownership in childhood with emotional outcomes, such as showing higher empathy and engaging in more prosocial behaviors. However, we still know very little about the underlying mechanism for the link between pet ownership and empathy, making it unclear why and how living with a pet enhances the development of prosocial emotions. One potential explanation is that living with a pet provides children with additional contexts to engage in social and emotional learning. In this study, we examined whether living with a pet dog in early childhood promotes empathy through conversations about emotions and mental states between parents and children in the presence of a pet. To do this, we compared parent-child conversations while playing with their pet dog to conversations while playing with a lifelike toy, a similar everyday context where conversations about emotions and mental states are possible. We found that parents use more emotion and mental state language when playing with their child and pet dog than with a lifelike toy, suggesting that living with pet dog may provide greater opportunities for children to learn about emotion and mental state concepts which may shape their social and emotional development.

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Why is it important?

Our research provides evidence about the ways in which living with a household pet impacts children's social environment. Specifically, living with a household pet early in life provides children with additional opportunities to engage in conversations about emotions and mental states which, over time, may support children's social and emotional development.


This article highlights how our household pets can play an integral part in children's development, and helps us understand how living with pets shapes children's emotional environments in ways that may support emotional development.

Lori Reider
Rutgers University Newark

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This page is a summary of: The impact of household pets on children’s daily lives: Differences in parent–child conversations and implications for children’s emotional development., Developmental Psychology, October 2023, American Psychological Association (APA),
DOI: 10.1037/dev0001595.
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