How Strong Is Children's Attachment to Their Pets?

Source: Blend Images/Shutterstock

Have you ever wondered whether children prefer certain types of animals as a pet, and what kind of attachment they have to their animals? A large new study by Roxanne Hawkins (University of Edinburgh) et al looks at this fascinating topic.
Attachment refers to our ability to form emotional bonds with our caregivers. A secure attachment is good for children’s development and mental health, and has a protective effect against various issues such as juvenile delinquency and anxiety disorders. Most research focuses on children’s attachment to their parents. But the fact so many children seem to form good relationships with pets makes it worthwhile investigating children’s attachment to their animals.

Just over 1200 children took part through 24 schools in Scotland. They were either in year 6 or year 8 (i.e. aged 8-9 or 10-11 years) and completed the questionnaire in class. 67% of the children had a pet, and 54% had a pet that was their own. While dogs (35%) and cats (22%) were the most common, other pets included small mammals, fish, reptiles and birds.

How do children feel about their pets?
Children reported very positive feelings towards their pets.
Of the children who had pets at home, 83% said their pet made them happy, 80% said they love their pet, and 76% said their pet was their best friend. They also had very high scores for attachment to their pets. This shows it is worth investigating children’s attachment to pets further.

Children had stronger attachments to dogs and cats than to other types of pet, in particular to dogs. This could be due to a different kind of relationship with these animals and a greater responsiveness to the child’s emotions, and perhaps also to the fact dogs can often go places with the child. However the scale that is used to measure attachment to pets does include some things that do not apply to all pets (e.g. grooming does not apply to fish) so it may overestimate the difference.

Are caring behaviors linked to attachment?
Children were asked about the extent to which they care for their pet. Behaviours included in this category were stroking, cuddling, playing with and grooming the pet, taking it for a walk, spending time with it and allowing it to stay in the room.
Children’s friendship behaviors towards the pet were giving it food or water, talking to it, telling it secrets, and the child crying with the pet when they felt sad. (The allocation of these items to the categories of ‘caring’ and ‘friendship’ was based on statistical analysis, which is why feeding is in this category).

The researchers found that caring and friendship behaviors and compassion towards animals were all linked to the strength of attachment to the pet. In turn, those with stronger attachment to pets had more positive attitudes toward animals.
In general, girls had stronger attachments to their pets than boys, and also had higher levels of caring and friendship behaviors to the pet and of compassion.

The researchers say that caring for the pet could lead to a strong attachment to it, and this attachment could potentially have beneficial effects for the child.
Of course, correlation does not show causation, and so we do not know if caring and friendship behaviors increase attachment to pets or are the result of it. There may also be differences between families that have pets and those that don’t, as discussed by Hal Herzog on this site recently. In this study there were no differences in family income between the children who had pets and those who didn’t, but more research is needed.

The researchers say:

“Our findings show that children with pets (or who had pets in their past) scored higher on all attachment items than children without pets or those who had never had a pet. These findings suggest that children who grow up with pets have an early opportunity to form pet attachments, become emotionally connected to their pets through direct experience, spend quality time with their pets, and experience a ‘sharing of significant moments’, which is consistent with previous research.”

These results show that children can and do form strong attachments to their pets, and that pets are important to them. Of course this does not mean that every parent should rush out and get a pet for their child – a pet is a big commitment that requires planning to get it right, including assessing whether or not it would be a suitable addition to the family.

The paper is open access if you wish to read it in full.

Social Conflict Between Household Cats

Source: D. Horwitz

By: Debra F. Horwitz, DVM, DACVB, Veterinary Behavior Consultations
In many parts of the world companion cats now outnumber dogs as the most popular household pet. In the US there are fewer cat owning households, yet owned cats exceeds owned dogs implying that many cats live with at least one other cat or more (Tables 1 and 2). Due to the innate social ecology of the domestic cat, this can often lead to social conflict between cats and other unwanted behaviors. According to a survey (1), 60% of multiple cat owners (N=240) have experienced tension between their cats within the last 12 months.

Source: D Horwitz

Source: D. Horwitz

In a free living situation cats will aggregate around abundant food resources and within those groups pick individuals that they associate with and those that they avoid. Domestic cats today are very much like wild cats although some are more social to humans and tolerant of living in close proximity to other cats. Unfortunately when brought indoors into the human household, although food is abundant, we usually pick their companions perhaps creating an uncomfortable social situation for certain cats.

Studies have shown that conflict between cats at introduction of a new cat is more likely to lead to ongoing problems (4).  Additional studies have shown a correlation with aggressive interactions between household cats and urine spraying (5).  An association between housing and stressful events has also been associated with FIC (6).

Naturally in any situation that causes a change in behavior, a good medical examination is needed to rule out and/or treat any medical problems that may be contributory. Chronic pain (dental, arthritic) can lead to irritability, chronic stress can lead to FLUTD and the continuing ongoing stimulation of the HPA axis may cause other physiological changes.

Owners are usually able to notice obvious signs of social conflict; chasing, stalking, growling, hissing, and outright fighting. Unfortunately many of the signs of feline social conflict are subtle and go unnoticed by owners.  These include staring, blocking access to locations, anorexia, hiding, trembling, and avoidance. These changes result in a welfare issue as targeted cats are unable to get to important resources: litter boxes, food, and water. These cats are deprived of social interactions with people, opportunities to play and choice lounging areas including window perches or owners laps. Ancillary behavior issues can also arise; house-soiling due to lack of litter box access, ongoing conflicts may stimulate one or more cats to mark with urine and/or claws in the home. It is likely that the entire feline household is affected by social conflicts, not just the obviously anxious and frightened cat.

Once a behavioral history is obtained a treatment plan can be devised. There are multiple interventions that can ease social conflict and increase harmony in multiple cat homes. A good place to begin is with environmental changes to allow cats to share the space and resources in a way that diminishes stress and social conflict (Table 3). Pheromones and other products can also be useful (Table 4).

Source: D. Horwitz

Source: D. Horwitz

More severe cases may require separation of the fighting cats and a detailed behavioral modification plan to reintroduce the cats and these are described in other sources (8, 9, 10).
Where fighting is ongoing with injuries and poor welfare are considerations, a visit to a Diplomate of the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists ( or veterinarian who treats behavior cases is advised.   

GfK 2014. Unpublished data from Ceva Animal Health…
Burke Inc. 2014. Unpublished data from Ceva Animal Health
Levine, E., Perry, P., Scarlett, J., & Houpt, K. A. (2005) Intercat aggression in households following the introduction of a new cat. Applied Animal Behaviour Science
Pryor PA, Hart BL, Bain MJ, Cliff KD, (2001) Causes of urine marking in cats and the effects of environmental management on frequency of marking  JAVMA 219:12: 1709-1713.
Buffington, C. A. T., Westropp, J. L., Chew, D. J., & Bolus, R. R. (2006). Risk factors associated with clinical signs of lower urinary tract disease in indoor-housed cats. Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, 228(5), 722-725.
DePorter T, Lopez A, Olliver E. (2014) Evaluation of the efficacy of a new pheromone product vs. placebo in the management of feline aggression in multi-cat households.  Proc ACVB / AVSAB Veterinary Behavior Symposium, Denver
Landsberg, G, Hunthausen, W, Ackerman, L (2013) “Feline Aggression” Handbook of Behavior Problems of the dog and cat 3rd edition, SaundersElsevier, Philadelphia, pp. 327-343.
Lindell EM, Erb HN, Houpt KA (1997) Intercat Aggression: retrospective study examining types of aggression, sexes of fighting pairs, and effectiveness of treatment Applied Animal Behaviour Science 55, pp. 153-162.
Horwitz DF, Neilson, JC (2007) Aggression/Feline: redirected. Blackwell’s Five-minute Veterinary Consult Clinical Companion Canine and Feline Behavior, Blackwell Publishing,  pp 148-154.

Risk Analysis of Behavior Problems: Owner Factors (4)

Dr. Bain and her dog, Thumper

Source: M. Bain

By: Melissa J. Bain, DVM, DACVB, MS, DACAW, University of California-Davis School of Veterinary Medicine, Clinical Animal Behavior Service, Davis, CA.
Many things affect an owner’s decision regarding the risk that they will take when making a decision about a pet with a problem behavior. In this blog post we will address the factors related to the owner.

Previous experiences
We can never truly understand how previous experiences affect a person’s view on things, and have to understand that, at least to a point, that perception is reality. One owner may have been bitten severely as a child, thus, not able to take risks, while another grew up in a house with rescue dogs and NO pet should ever be euthanized for behavior problems.

Owners are also exposed to a lot of incorrect information, perhaps more so in behavior. Celebrity trainers and television personalities color what an owner thinks about pets, especially when television shows an animal ‘magically’ improved over the course of a 30 minute episode, not considering that it is heavily edited.

Ability to take risks
This is an individual decision. No one can live in another person’s home, and cannot determine what they can or cannot risk. Some owners are unable to take ANY risk, such as ‘my dog can never, ever growl at my son, ever.’ Some others take risks that no one else would, such as ‘even though my dog killed my other dog, I will do everything to keep him alive.’ If an owner is taking an unwarranted risk, such as not supervising interactions between a dangerous dog and a child, we should remain obligated to protect those who cannot be protected. This can range from having a serious (and documented) conversation with a pet owner, to reporting the situation to authorities.

Owners have time constraints on what they are able to accomplish regarding behavior modification for their pet. For some owners it is a major concern, and sometimes this barrier can be overcome with behavior modification appointments with a professional. Owners may seek out ‘board and train’, but should be counseled that trainers who offer this often use punishment-based training methods.

Pet owners usually do not have the expertise that other animal care professionals have. Timing in the delivery of a reward is difficult to impart to owners. The ability to identify body language and vocal cues is also something that takes time to learn, even for the most seasoned of animal care workers. Videos, websites, and printed material can help owners identify the earliest warning sign that an animal is uncomfortable, which will allow them to avoid having the animal needing to go to more extreme measures.

It is important to seek help for pets with problem behaviors from a professional such as a board-certified veterinary behaviorist. They can be helpful in diagnosing the problem and giving you a prognosis for the outcome.