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Pet ownership is good for kids, but not for the reason you think

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Kids with pets appear to have an advantage in life, but that could simply be because their parents are better off.

I am conflicted about zoos. I worry they’re an extension of our other colonial activities, marking our territory at the apex of the natural world, and a form of species-level dominance that shares a root with the domination of men over women and of majority over minority “racial” and cultural groups.

Or perhaps I’m overthinking things. Maybe they’re just a playground to take the children, rather than go stir crazy at home. Whatever they used to be, zoos are now playing a different role, in conservation and reminding people of the challenges humans have created for the diversity of global fauna.

We recently spent a long weekend in Melbourne, visiting one of our daughters. The whole family, boyfriend in tow, headed to Melbourne Zoo, entry to which costs a shade under $40 an adult. It better be good, I thought.

Macro alias: ModuleRenderer

And it was, starting with an open lemur enclosure, in which visitors can wander among the animals, and one of the largest elephant herds I’ve seen. All punctuated by biologist Will commentating “fun fact about [insert animal]”.

One of the reasons we head to zoos is to expose our children to animals they won’t see in their everyday lives, and there’s research to suggest this is a good thing.

There’s also research to suggest that pet ownership is good for kids. I’ve personally believed – perhaps hoped – that having a pet helps develop empathy and compassion. In 2017, the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health published a review of more than 20 studies investigating effects of pet ownership on children, concluding that kids with pets tend to do slightly better in terms of educational outcomes, self-esteem, social networks and social interaction. Yay for Fido.

As usual, it may be a little more complicated, however. Not long after this review was published, a spanner was thrown into the works by researchers at Rand Corporation, a not-for-profit US-based thinktank. The group, led by Jeremy Miles, a member of Rand’s behavioural sciences department, used the existing California Health Interview Survey to look at outcomes for more than 5000 5- to 11-year-olds.

First, they confirmed that kids with pets are more physically active and healthy and have fewer mood, learning or behavioural problems. Intriguingly, kids with cats or dogs had a greater than 50% likelihood of having an attention deficit disorder (ADHD) diagnosis.

However, kids with pets also tended to come from different kinds of households than Fido-less kids. In short, households with pets tended to experience more social and economic advantage, and once you control for such things as parental health and wealth, the benefits of pet ownership go away. Pet ownership, in other words, is a proxy for advantage.

This also applies to the ADHD result. I’d speculate that, rather than indicating that kids with pets are more likely to be distracted and hyperactive, it’s probably that kids who behave that way are more likely to be taken for assessment and treatment by their advantaged, pet-owning parents. Importantly, though, there’s no suggestion that pet ownership is bad for children. It’s also possible that there are benefits the Rand researchers didn’t measure.

And in this country? I won’t tell you yet, but I can say that Gloria Fraser, a Victoria University of Wellington research collaborator of mine, is looking into this using data from more than 13,000 people who took part in the 2016 New Zealand Attitudes and Values Study.

We’re looking at whether pet ownership (61.6% have one) shows physical, psychological or social benefits, and whether different types of pets (43% cats, 30% dogs, about 1% a horse or other animal) confer different benefits. Maybe dog owners are fitter because they have to walk Fido? Maybe cat owners feel less lonely because of Fluffy’s companionship?

Watch this space.

This article was first published in the April 6, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.