How pets give your kids a brain boost

Understanding how a pet sees the world is vital to making sure everyone gets along. If a cat urinates on a new cot or pram brought into the house, it’s easy to jump to conclusions. “If you weren’t sympathetic to the way the cat thinks you might think, ‘Oh, the cat’s just getting cross because I’m going to have a baby, it must know’,” says Bradshaw. “Of course, they don’t know. It’s very often the olfactory environment [the smell of the home] that’s been churned up and the cat’s lost its familiar points of reference.”

Both cats and dogs rely heavily on their noses, so having lots of new smells in the house is like “coming home and finding that someone has painted your walls completely opposite colours,” says Bradshaw. On the flip side, familiar scents can keep them happy. In one trial, Bradshaw and his colleagues put a t-shirt that had been worn by a dog’s owner into their bed. “That familiar smell seemed to work wonders for the dog, they were much more relaxed,” he says.

Not anthropomorphizing our pets – meaning, expecting them to think and behave like humans – is especially important when it comes to a child’s safety. “You can never be 100% sure how a dog is going to react in any one given situation,” says Bradshaw. “There’s all sorts of possible things which can trigger the dog into a different mode of behavior, maybe one that the owner has never seen before.”

Ultimately, each child-pet relationship is unique, with its own quirks, benefits, and pitfalls – and in some ways researchers are only just starting to understand what makes a child’s relationship with their pet mutually beneficial. “The field is really moving towards looking at these more individual differences,” says Mueller.

Meanwhile, children themselves rank pets as some of the most important beings in their lives, seeing their animal companions as a comfort and emotional support, as well as being infallible confidantes for a secret. Some of those benefits “are very difficult to quantify because they’re very individual, and science deals in populations and big numbers,” says Bradshaw. “Just because it’s not very tangible and easily measured, it doesn’t mean it’s not real.”

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