Dr. Allen – Children’s Self-Esteem and Companion Animals


Children’s Self-Esteem and Companion Animals

Children’s positive self-esteem will affect just about every aspect of their lives. It will influence how they gets along with others, how they handle school and studying, how they deal with pressure and stress and everything they do as children, adolescents and adults. Bright children with poor self-esteem may do poorly in school, but average children who believe in themselves can excel. Children with high self-esteem are more willing to accept challenges in life and are more apt to try something new. They even tend to be healthier.

The Delta Society is an organization devoted to the study of the human-animal bond. This bonding we do can be with just about any species of animal that isn’t trying to eat you, from a pet cricket to the bond that develops between a zookeeper and her elephant. But the majority of cases are, of course, between humans, dogs and cats.

When I was growing up I can’t remember when we didn’t have a companion animal in the house. I faintly remember Scratchy the cat who was banished for what we now call “indiscriminate elimination.” Then there was a Schipperke that would drag its butt on the floor (now I know its anal glands were bothering it). When I was seven I had a hamster, and I brought him to school on the day we had our class picture taken. There I sit, holding him up against my chest. As I grew older, we always seemed to have a cat living with us, and practically every year she had kittens. Mittens was a polydactyl, a cat with extra toes, and she passed trait onto many of her offspring.

My mother was widowed when I was five-and-a-half, I had an older brother and a couple friends in the neighborhood. And I always had a companion animal. I would always talk to them, sometimes confide in them, like the time I was scolded by my mother for some infraction. I told Mittens I was going to run away and take her with me. She was very understanding, reassuring and agreeable. And very comforting. Did our companion animals help me as a child? In retrospect, I truly think they did.

The Delta Society cites a number of studies regarding children and companion animals:

  • “Children exposed to humane [animal] education programs display enhanced empathy for humans compared with children not exposed to such programs. (Ascione, 1992).”
  • “Positive self-esteem of children is enhanced by owning a Companion animal. (Bergensen, 1989).”
  • “Children’s cognitive development can be enhanced by owning a Companion animal. (Poresky, 1988).”
  • “70% of families surveyed reported an increase in family happiness and fun subsequent to companion animal acquisition. (Cain, 1985).”
  • “The presence of a dog during a child’s physical examination decreased their stress. (Nadgengast, 1997, Baun, 1998).”
  • “Children owning companion animals are more involved in activities such as sports, hobbies, clubs or chores. (Melson, 1990).”
  • “Children exposed to companion animals during the first year of life have a lower frequency of allergic rhinitis and asthma. (Hesselmar, 1999).”
  • “Children with autism have more prosocial behaviors [and] less autistic behaviors such as self-absorbtion. (Redefer, 1989).”
  • “Children who own companion animals score significantly higher on empathy and prosocial orientation scales than non-owners. (Vidovic, 1999).”


Should every child have a companion animal? For the majority of cases, probably yes. Since companion animals can be used to teach children values and wanted behaviors, getting a companion animal is a great idea. It involves, however, a lifelong commitment to the care and welfare of that animal as a member of your family. For most companion animal owners, their dog, cat or bird is as much a family member as is a child, and their loss is taken just about as hard.

Dogs perhaps require the greatest commitment for companion animal ownership. They are very social creatures that demand a great deal of human interaction for THEM to be self-fulfilled. Cats require less time, and sometimes seem to be indifferent about your presence at all. We have two dogs and nine cats. Each of our companion animals has a unique personality. Our oldest cat would probably be happier if the other eight left home. Yule and Mina are always waiting to greet me when I open the bedroom door in the morning. Another hides when a stranger is in the house and one rejects human affection.

Selection of the best companion animal for your particular family situation should take time and considerable forethought and planning. Find out all you can about a particular breed or type of companion animal. Pocket companion animals (hamsters, mice, gerbils, rats, rabbits, Guinea pigs and ferrets) are caged animals that don’t take up much space or financial investment, but still require daily care and attention. You might be surprised how engrossed and enamored some adult owners of pocket Companion animals become.

Very young children (under 3 to 4 years old) do not have the maturity to control their aggressive and angry impulses, and companion animals should always be monitored when interacting with them. I have treated companion animal injuries due to young children carrying them and falling on the companion animal or dropping it. If you wouldn’t let your child play with a Hummel, don’t let them play with an equally breakable living creature.

Children under 10 are rarely able to care for a large companion animal, like a dog or cat, entirely on their own, and you must assume that much of the care will fall to you. Of course, you must supervise and oversee the companion animal’s care even if your child is old enough. They need to be reminded that animals, like people, need food, water and exercise. Parents serve as role models here, and children learn responsible companion animal ownership by observing their parents’ behavior.

A child’s good relationship with a companion animal can also help in developing non-verbal communication, compassion and empathy. Children often talk to their companion animals, as they do with their stuffed animals, and they become safe recipients of secrets and private thoughts. A companion animal may also provide lessons about life, including illnesses, accidents, death and bereavement. Perhaps most of all, they can teach respect for other living things. Likewise, rough or abusive interaction with a companion animal may be a sign of significant emotional problems requiring a comprehensive evaluation by one of you.

Then there is something I see almost every day when I handle a Companion animal. It’s called “comfort contact.” It’s a proven phenomenon that when we stroke a dog or cat our blood pressure goes down, along with our heart rate. It’s a calming effect. Well, guess what? The feeling is mutual. When I’m listening to a nervous dog’s heart and I reach out and pet it while I’m listening, the heart rate decreases. It’s the contact. Almost as good as a hug.

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