Childhood Studies Children and Animals
Gail F. Melson
  • LAST REVIEWED: 19 July 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 22 April 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791231-0136


The study of children’s development traditionally has focused on children’s relationships with other humans. However, in the last fifty years, there has been increased recognition that children live in a world of many different species and natural environments. Across cultures, pet ownership is common in households with children. US households with children younger than eighteen years of age are more likely than any other household type to contain resident animals. As a result, most US children are estimated to grow up with a household animal. Moreover, even urban children have daily exposure to many species of wild animals. Animals also play important symbolic roles for children in stories, toys, and now in virtual reality. In recent decades, scholars have begun to focus on other animals, plants, and natural settings, thereby expanding the focus of childhood studies beyond the traditional contexts of family, school, peer group, community, and culture. In addition, the theory of biophilia, suggesting that children would have an innate interest in animals and other life forms, further spurred research on the role of animals, particularly pets, in children’s development. A third influence stemmed from efforts to incorporate animals into therapeutic and educational interventions for children with special needs. Beginning with Boris Levinson’s influential book, Pet-Oriented Child Psychotherapy, first published in 1969 and updated in 1997 (see Levinson 1997, cited under Animals in Therapies and Education), animal-assisted therapy, animal-assisted education, and animal-assisted enrichment activities have proliferated. Although therapists and educators often report case studies of dramatic improvement in children’s functioning, systematic research on the efficacy of animal-assisted interventions has lagged behind practice. However, evidence is accumulating to document beneficial effects of animal-assisted therapies in improving physical, social, and emotional functioning among children with specific impairments, such as cerebral palsy, autism spectrum disorder, and conduct disorder. Along with this research, studies of typically developing children have found that children often develop strong emotional ties to their pets, making them important relationships in children’s lives. These bonds allow many children to derive emotional support in times of stress and may help develop empathy. Another line of research documents the role that caring for animals may play in developing children’s interest in and ability to nurture. Of particular significance is the finding that boys and girls do not differ in caring for animals, despite the emergence of gender differences in caring for other humans. These findings, together with the frequent presence of pets in the home, make pet care an important opportunity for boys to nurture others. Animals play a role in children’s cognitive development as well. Studies of naïve biology explore how children develop early understanding, before formal biology education, of what it means to be alive; how other species differ from humans; how life forms grow, reproduce, and die; and related issues. Exposure to living animals influences the development of these biological constructs. Finally, animals influence children’s moral development. As children are reasoning about the morality of human relationships, they are also reasoning about human treatment of animals and their environments. Although the major focus of research has been on the potential benefits of animals for children’s development, scholars of domestic violence and animal maltreatment have found that both tend to co-occur in families, posing risks to both child and animal welfare. These findings have led to collaborative efforts by child protective services and animal protection societies aimed at prevention, diagnosis, and treatment.

General Overviews

The journals Anthrozoos and Society and Animals are the most prominent publications devoted to current peer-reviewed articles on human–animal interactions and frequently feature scholarship on children and animals. Beck and Katcher 1996 provides an overview of how pets affect people of all ages, while Kahn and Kellert 2002 features contributions from scholars who place children’s involvement with animals in the broader perspective of nature experiences. For a general orientation to the role of animals, particularly dogs, for special populations at risk, Fine 2010 (updated every few years) is very useful. Several edited volumes (McCardle, et al. 2011a; McCardle, et al. 2011b) survey the field of human–animal interaction research related to children with contributions from leaders in the field. Melson 2001 is the only comprehensive analysis of animals in the lives of children, encompassing pets, wild animals, animal symbols, and therapies involving animals.

  • Anthrozoos.

    Devoted to scholarly articles on human–animal interaction, with numerous articles about children and animals. Useful for both beginning and advanced students.

  • Beck, Alan, and Aaron Katcher. Between Pets and People: The Importance of Animal Companionship. West Lafayette, IN: Purdue University Press, 1996.

    Written by two pioneers in the field of human–animal interaction studies, this paperback is an accessible overview of research and theory concerning the importance of pets for humans across the lifespan.

  • Fine, Aubrey H. Handbook on Animal-Assisted Therapy. 3d ed. New York: Academic, 2010.

    Edited volume with latest research and best practices concerning animal-assisted therapies involving pets such as dogs, birds, and horses. Several chapters focus specifically on children. Useful for practitioners as well as those who want an overview of the field of animal-assisted therapies.

  • Kahn, Peter H., Jr., and Stephen R. Kellert, eds. Children and Nature: Psychological, Sociocultural, and Evolutionary Investigations. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2002.

    Edited by two leading scholars, the twelve chapters in this volume place children’s interactions with animals within the context of nature experiences. Implications for cognitive, emotional, and social development are explored. Chapters on therapeutic, educational, and policy implications make this volume useful for students and practitioners alike.

  • McCardle, Peggy, Sandra McCune, James A. Griffin, Layla Esposito, and Lisa S. Freund, eds. Animals in Our Lives: Human-Animal Interaction in Family, Community, and Therapeutic Settings. Baltimore: Brookes, 2011a.

    An outgrowth of a workshop of scholars convened by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) and the Waltham Centre for Pet Nutrition in the United Kingdom in 2009, this edited volume critically reviews current research and theory and sets out a research agenda. Excellent for advanced students and scholars.

  • McCardle, Peggy, Sandra McCune, James A. Griffin, and Valerie Maholmes, eds. How Animals Affect Us: Examining the Influence of Human-Animal Interaction on Child Development and Human Health. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association, 2011b.

    DOI: 10.1037/12301-000

    A follow-up to the McCardle, et al. 2011a volume, this compilation assesses the “state of the field” with respect to the role of animals in child development and its implications for physical and emotional well-being.

  • Melson, Gail F. Why the Wild Things Are: Animals in the Lives of Children. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2001.

    Comprehensive overview of the role of animals in children’s development, with emphasis on the role of pets. Implications for parents, educators, and therapists make this volume suitable for a general audience as well as scholars and students.

  • Society and Animals.

    Includes articles on human–animal interaction and relations from many disciplines. Frequently includes topics related to children and animals. Excellent resource for current research in the field.

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