Most animal lovers will say they have an instant connection with pets and other animals. But there’s something a little different — something extra special — about the way kids connect with animals.
There are countless stories out there of how trust and loyalty develop between animals and kids. Take Brutus, a dog who brings his favorite toys to comfort his crying human brother. Or Sapphire, a formerly stray cat who instantly warmed up to her newborn sister. Or Fury, a pit bull who recently received some comfort during a thunderstorm from his kid best friend. Or Roman, a little boy who has helped save hundreds of shelter dogs who needed homes. The list goes on and on.
So why do kids love animals so much?
Experts are just starting to really explore the special relationship between kids and animals, which could have profound insights for child psychology. There’s already some evidence that spending time with animals can increase a child’s self-esteem, help teach kids how to interact socially and even promote a kid’s cognitive development.
The Dodo asked three parents — who work with animals themselves — for their perspectives.
Speaking a Different Kind of Language
Being a little kid is fun, but it can be frustrating, too — you’re still learning words, and sometimes it’s very hard to communicate (leading to tantrums and screaming).
When she first became a parent, Barbara J. King — a professor who’s spent years studying animal emotions — saw firsthand how animals can help kids connect to the world. Her daughter, Sarah, is 25 years old, but as a toddler she was very headstrong and determined. That intensity led to tears and confusion, King said, when Sarah would realize she was too little to do what she wanted or say what she needed to say.
But Sarah had a very special relationship with Swirl, the family’s beloved gray and white cat — and Swirl worked wonders in helping Sarah understand the big world around her. “[H]aving Swirl nearby helped Sarah moderate her moods,” King writes. “Being with amazon.com/…hered-Creatures/dp/B006CDNB3Ca nonverbal (meowing!) creature may induce in a child a watchfulness, an ability to pick up on body-language cues, and a growing recognition that we human beings have a responsibility beyond just ourselves.”
To this day, King believes that Swirl helped shape Sarah’s childhood — and says that relationships with animals are important for all kids to have. Animals don’t just make kids happy — they can make them responsible and empathetic people.
“I think that encouraging children’s attunement and kindness to animals from a very young age is absolutely urgent,” King told The Dodo, “and at the same time, a fantastic way to guide our children towards joyful experiences.”
Learning Self-Esteem and Empathy
Being around animals can also help kids gain self-esteem and empathy for others.
Take Riley, a little boy who is 2 and a half years old. Riley’s mom, Miriam Stein Battles, fosters kittens for West Orange Trap Neuter Vaccinate Return (WOTNVR), a cat rescue in New Jersey, so Riley’s grown up around these baby animals. Riley’s mom told The Dodo that she’s seen Riley blossom around the dozens of kittens she’s taken in over the past couple of years. “He’s been around kittens since the age of 5 months,” Battles told The Dodo.
Battles still remembers when Riley first showed a real interest in the kittens. “He was about 6 months old and we had two 3-month-old kittens that usually sat by the window together. He was having a bottle and kept looking over at the one kitten by the window and I couldn’t figure out why he was so distracted,” Battles said. “Finally, the second kitten joined her brother by the window and Riley saw her, smiled, and then concentrated on his bottle. I realized he had been wondering where the second kitten was.”
Since then, Riley has learned how to properly hold the foster kittens and help his mom with them. Even though he can barely do most of the things adults do, he knows he’s playing an important part in the lives of these little animals as they grow up and find homes — something that makes him feel good about himself.
“He loves having kittens around and talks about them like they’re his friends,” Battles said. “I think it’s great for young children to be introduced to animals because it not only teaches them kindness, but it helps to socialize them (little humans) and instill a sense of caring and empathy for others.”
Some people might argue that little kids can get this same lesson from having siblings — but lots of parents who’ve seen their kids in action with an animal disagree.
King says that Sarah never could have learned the lessons she did if Swirl was a human instead of a cat. “Swirl did for Sarah what no sibling could possibly have done: day after day, week after week — indeed, year after year,” King writes. “She offered a companionable presence without any teasing or tense rivalry or any of the other complex components of sibling relationships.”
Because animals are patient and forgiving, a new idea has popped up in recent years: Some animal shelters and farm sanctuaries have started bringing in kids who are just learning to read so they can practice reading out loud to the animals, who won’t judge them for mistakes — and the animals are happy to have the company, too.
Rescuing Each Other
It isn’t one-sided: Animals can help kids grow up to become empathetic, intelligent and kind people — but kids also help animals feel safe.
People who work in animal rescue have also noticed that many nervous animals respond particularly well to kids.
“Every new rescue that comes here is always greeted by our young daughter first,” Koby Wegge, cofounder of Sycamore Tree Ranch, an animal rescue and sanctuary in Texas, told The Dodo. “Sometimes they are too scared to come up to us but they always are curious of her … [and some animals] will come up and greet our daughter before they are comfortable with adults.”
“It’s so special to see the interaction,” Wegge added. “Some of the animals light up when our kids come outside and just want to follow them around.”
“We like to walk our property as many evenings as we can and discovered that the donkeys love to join, too,” Wegge previously told The Dodo. “There’s also always our dogs that join us and a few cats, too. And sometimes even the goats like to come along!”
In one memorable picture, Wegge’s daughter Honor sits in her stroller, surrounded by a group of donkeys waiting for a chance to cuddle with their favorite kid.
“When we are on our walk, each donkey waits their turn for a hug,” Wegge said. “It is the sweetest.”
Kids who grow up with animals see them as part of their family — and it’s clear the animals love them right back.