Companion Animals and Child Development: Existing Knowledge and Analysis of the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children Cohort

Purewal, Rebecca
(2019) Companion Animals and Child Development: Existing Knowledge and Analysis of the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children Cohort. PhD thesis, University of Liverpool.

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Childhood and adolescence are important developmental phases that influence health and well-being across the life span. Social relationships are fundamental to child and adolescent development, yet studies have been largely limited to children’s relationships with other humans. Whether pet ownership can exert similar developmental health benefits during childhood is largely unknown. The main aim of this thesis was therefore to investigate the impact of pet ownership on the development in children and young people. This thesis provides an evidence review of the current literature, and an investigation of the potential associations between pet ownership and emotional; behavioural; cognitive; educational; and language development outcomes, using the analysis of a large cohort dataset, the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children (ALSPAC). The review found that pet ownership and the significance of children’s bonds with companion animals have been underexplored within child development, and there was a shortage of high quality and longitudinal studies that controlled for confounding. This thesis aimed to address this research gap in the field using ALSPAC data, and in addition, to make an original contribution to knowledge by investigating developmental outcomes that had not yet been previously explored. Data was collected and analysed from approximately 14,000 families via parental and child reports, and clinic assessments. Analyses were adjusted for a wide range of potential confounders, including demographic and socio-economic variables, and to maximise data usage, missing data techniques were applied. Univariable and multivariable logistic and linear regression analyses were carried out to assess associations between pet ownership (any pet, dog, cat, other) and developmental outcomes. Outcomes investigated were: emotional health (self-esteem, anxiety and depression); behavioural outcomes (emotional difficulties, hyperactivity, conduct difficulties, peer problems and prosocial behaviour); cognitive development (attention, impulsivity and memory); educational attainment (KS1, KS2 and GCSE); and language development (comprehension, vocabulary, social development and non-verbal communication) in childhood. Within emotional health, evidence of an association was found between owning any pet or a cat, and a lower self-esteem (scholastic competence) at age 8. Further associations were found between any pet or other pet ownership and higher odds of social anxiety at age 7. Within behavioural development, cat ownership was associated with increased odds of hyperactivity at age 3. Owning any pet, or a cat at age 3, and owning a dog at both ages 3 and 11 was associated with increased conduct disorder. However owning dogs or other pets was associated with a lower likelihood of experiencing prosocial difficulties at age 3, and owning other pets was associated with fewer peer problems at age 11. Owning other pets at age 11 was also associated with fewer total behavioural difficulties at age 11. Within cognitive development, dog ownership was associated with poorer attentional switching at age 11. Pet ownership was consistently associated with lower educational attainment in a number of different subjects across ages, despite adjustment for logical confounders. Lastly, pet ownership was associated with a higher score in language comprehension at age 5, and a higher non-verbal communication score at age 2. This thesis finds no clear patterns across developmental outcomes, pet types or child age in the ALSPAC dataset. Pet ownership does not appear to be associated with improved emotional health, cognitive or educational development of children. Owning pets may however, have a positive impact on social development as seen through the positive associations in language development and prosocial behaviour. This thesis demonstrates the importance of using large, well-designed longitudinal studies that control for key confounders. Future research needs to incorporate age-appropriate pet attachment or pet bonding measures into future cohort studies in order to determine whether the relationships we have with our pets are of more importance than pet ownership in conferring developmental benefits.

Item Type: Thesis (PhD)
Divisions: Faculty of Health and Life Sciences
Depositing User: Symplectic Admin
Date Deposited: 13 Aug 2020 14:46
Last Modified: 03 Aug 2022 00:15
DOI: 10.17638/03073106