The secret life of pets and kids

How pets play critical roles in children’s social, emotional, physical and cognitive development.
February 21, 2017

By Ricardo Maldonado, syndicated sage at Smarty Pants research firm

The love that kids have for pets is timeless and near universal. We’ve seen this love on display countless times across the decades, from classic TV shows and movies like Lassie, Flipper and Old Yeller, to more modern takes like the new film A Dog’s Purpose. The plot is familiar and a reminder that whether they are real, plush, plastic or digital, pets are an important part of children’s lives. From toddlers to teens, and regardless of gender, kids have a special connection with their furry, finned and feathered friends.

Yes, adults love animals, too. But the relationship children have with pets is even more complex. Pets aren’t just “man’s best friend” to those who are coming of age. They play critical roles in children’s social, emotional, physical and cognitive development. And while adults recognize the full weight of the responsibility that comes with pets, kids primarily see opportunity.


Pets offer kids the opportunity to create an emotional bond with “someone” that in all likelihood will love them unconditionally. Dogs and cats seek out their kid owners (oops…kid “parents”)—they cuddle with them, and they are sad when they’re not around. There’s a genuine and loyal relationship that develops, and it’s liberating in that kids can just be themselves. They don’t have to worry about being judged or picked on. Their pet doesn’t care what they’re wearing, or if they made a social blunder. A pet essentially has one rule: love me and I’ll love you back. For kids, it doesn’t get any better than that. 


No doubt, pets can be excellent playmates. They provide relief from boredom, and often an incentive to get outside and run around. For many kids, their dog is the sibling that never cheats or complains or says, “I don’t wanna play.” Instead, dogs can be great inspiration for role-play, imitation, rough-and-tumble, and other unstructured play patterns. They are the friend who happily brings the tennis ball back and is always up for a game of chase.


Kids learn how to love someone based on how their parents and guardians love them. Most actually look up to their caregivers and enjoy spending time with them. Having a pet offers a child the opportunity to switch these roles and have a “child” of their own, so to speak. They get to be the givers of care for a change—holding, feeding, providing toys, and sometimes dressing their pets. It’s a fun way for kids to feel like budding parents. It also helps build responsibility and gives kids a sense of pride that they are part of the successful development of “someone”—even if it’s just a fish.


Being barked at all day (pun intended) is no treat for kids. They spend most of their days on the receiving end of instruction from teachers, coaches and parents. But having a pet flips the trainer-trainee script. Finally, they get to be the ones who coach, mentor, guide and instruct—and that’s enormously empowering. Whether they are training their fish to swim through its ceramic underwater castle or teaching their new puppy where to go potty, being the ringmaster in a world where they typically have little control is very rewarding.


Physically interacting with another living thing that isn’t human is a really cool experience for kids. Whether they get to touch an animal that is soft and furry, spiky, slimy, scaly or rough, or suddenly understand reproduction because the hamster cage got some new tenants overnight, having a pet is a multi-sensory learning experience. It expands kids’ worldview as they realize not only what something else is, but also what we are not. Pets provide that non-stop adventure, satisfying curiosities and providing countless eye-opening moments.

Capitalizing on love

Toy manufacturers and content developers have been tapping into kids’ love of animals, and more specifically, pets, for decades. Remember Slinky Dog, Sock Monkeys and that cuddly interactive friend, Teddy Ruxpin? How about Pound Puppies? Or the (still alive and kicking) Littlest Pet Shop? The themes are the same, and the surrogate relationships are timeless. The execution is just different.

At the same time, the on-screen manifestation of pet-kid relationships may have changed from Old Yeller to Dog With a Blog, but the themes of loyalty and family make an evergreen connection with kids (and parents). Not to mention that the adorable nature of kittens, puppies, bunnies and even pigs continue to drive hits like Paw Patrol, Max & Ruby and Peppa Pig.

The digital world has also given kids cool new ways to be pet parents. Think about the evolution from Webkinz, Moshi Monsters and Neopets to now-popular apps like Toca Pet Salon and Sago Mini Road Trip. Screen-based opportunities to provide care and play alongside animal friends are now boundless, as long as the execution is right.

Looking ahead

In an era filled with live-action TV shows, social media and apps, let’s not forget why favorites like My Little Pony have been around for more than 35 years, or why Hatchimals was all the rage for Christmas 2016.

From Tamagotchi to Furby, and from Pound Puppies to Zoomer Chimps, products may change, but kids keep coming back to playthings that let them connect, train and nurture. It’s why Mister Ed has been supplanted by My Talking Tom, and why we’ll continue to see smart iterations of pet-based relationships and play patterns. There’s a big future in new-school executions that fulfill kids’ old-school development needs in ways that only pets can.

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