“Our findings suggest that it may not be whether an animal is present in an individual’s life that is most significant but rather the quality of that relationship,” said Megan Mueller, Ph.D., a developmental psychologist and research assistant professor at the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University.
“The young adults in the study who had strong attachment to pets reported feeling more connected to their communities and relationships.”
For the study, published in Applied Developmental Science, Mueller surveyed more than 500 young people — predominately female — between the ages of 18 and 26 about their attitudes and interaction with animals.
Those responses were indexed against responses the same participants had given on a range of questions that measure positive youth development characteristics, such as competence, caring, confidence, connection, and character, as well as feelings of depression.
The research is part of a national study, the 4-H Study of Positive Youth Development, which was led by Tufts Professor of Child Development Richard Lerner, Ph.D., and funded by the National 4-H Council.
Young adults who cared for animals reported engaging in more “contribution” activities, such as providing service to their community, helping friends or family and demonstrating leadership, than those who did not, according to the study’s findings.
“The more actively they participated in the pet’s care, the higher the contribution scores,” the researchers noted.
The study also found that high levels of attachment to an animal in late adolescence and young adulthood were positively associated with feeling connected with other people, having empathy and feeling confident, according to Mueller.
“We can’t draw causal links with this study but it is a promising starting point to better understanding the role of animals in our lives, especially when we are young,” she said.
“To learn more about how and if interacting with animals is linked with positive youth development, future studies need to look at specific features of human experiences with animals, as well as how these relationships develop over time,” Mueller said. In addition, “a larger, more diverse sample also is needed.”
Source: Tufts University