Having a pet offers companionship, comfort and emotional security to millions; many love and cherish them like family members. This can in turn have positive effects on mental health.
However, what happens if young pet owners witness neglect, cruelty or death?
Close bonding is a clear positive for a family unit with a well-cared for pet. But many pets suffer terrible abuse in the presence of children. New research from Girardi & Pozzulo's in Anthrozoös give a thought provoking new perspective on outcomes for children who love their pets but see them treated violently or killed. Could such exposure lead to anxiety and depression in later life as it has in children subjected to violent abuse of close family members?
318 undergraduate psychology students were asked to complete an online survey about pet ownership in their early lives. Those who witnessed abuse of their pets were asked about the severity, longevity and frequency of exposure. Finally they were assessed for symptoms of depression and or anxiety, with controls in place for other forms of family violence or abuse.
Controls aside, the results showed variable strengths of bond between owner and pet. Those with a low level bond and exposed to pet aggression showed similar tendency for depression/anxiety to those who had not been exposed. Those with a medium bond did, however, show significantly higher incidence in symptoms than the no exposure group. Did a stronger bond, empathy and distress on mistreatment of the pet equate to greater mental health risks in adulthood?
Surprisingly, exposed individuals with the deepest bond did not have the highest rates of anxiety/depression in adulthood. Could the positive effects of a strong pet relationship outweigh the harm done? Girardi & Pozzulo acknowledge the complex nature of this issue and conclude "…a number of biological and environmental factors contribute to the development and prevention of internalizing disorders, the results… suggest that these factors may include experiences with childhood pets." This information should be considered by social workers investigating child neglect and clinicians administering therapy to children and has "important implications for child protection."
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