Growing up with a dog or a cat in the house means you are 20 per cent less likely to have social and emotional problems as an adult, a study claims.
Researchers from the University of Western Australia found pets were particularly beneficial to only children.
They studied children aged five and then again when they turned seven to find out the impact animals have on their mental and physical health.
The Australian study found small children with a pet are less likely to be naughty at school and more likely to socialise with other children.
The benefits of a pet are well known for adults, from walking dogs to increase exercise activity to having cats as companions for those on their own.
Having pets at home leads to an increase in confidence and teaches children vital lessons about caring for others, trustworthiness and friendship, the study found.
Even the death of a pet, while heartbreaking, can help kids develop an understanding about loss and develop their emotional understanding, said the University of Western Australia research for the specialist Journal of Pediatrics.
The authors looked at data from a nationwide study of more than 4,200 Australian children at both age five and, again, at age seven which included a psychological questionnaire measuring social-emotional development.
The massive study also looked at children’s personality strengths and weaknesses.
One in four of the study group – 27 per cent – had abnormal scores but those with pets were, on average, 20 per cent less likely to be among them.
The scores were better for those with either a dog or a cat compared to those without pets at all, the study authors discovered.
Overall, 75 per cent of the children analysed lived in a home with a pet and most likely to have had a pet join the household around the time they began school.
The report said: ‘Early school age is an important period for family pet acquisition.
‘Pets may protect children from developing social-emotional problems and should be taken into account when assessing child development and school readiness.’
The study authors found that children without siblings benefit the most in terms of their social skills as the pets help them socialise and relate to others.
They found owning a household pet is associated with fewer social and emotion problems in young children and it doesn’t matter what the pet is.
‘Compared with children with no pets, children with dogs or cats had fewer emotional symptoms and peer problems, and dog owners had better prosocial behaviour,’ they found.
‘Pet ownership was associated with positive child social outcomes, such as relationships with peers and the ability to form friendships and be well-liked.’
One of the things the researchers found was that interacting with pets can help children to learn about social concepts.
They do this by mimicking the interactions that children have with other humans.
‘Interacting positively with a pet can increase confidence and decrease the fear of rejection in social interactions with other children,’ the authors claim.