The relationship between pet ownership and youth development has become an increasingly important area of research in understanding pathways to well-being among youth. Families report high levels of pet ownership (68% of families in the United States have at least one pet), and youth consider pets an important member of the family. The high prevalence of companion animals and the initial evidence that human-animal interaction (HAI) promotes the social-emotional and physical health of youth all suggest that research on the relationship between HAI and youth development is critically important.
The first research goal is to assess if there are systematic differences between families who own pets and those who do not with regard to demographics, cultural and ethnic identity, social environment, and health status and if these factors predict patterns of pet ownership (e.g., stability or change in pet ownership status) over time. The second research goal is to determine the role of pet ownership in predicting trajectories of youth development, including social interaction and support, academic performance, mental health, physical activity, and substance use risk.
To achieve these aims, researchers are proposing adding human-animal interaction items to the National Institutes of Health-funded Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development (ABCD) study annual assessment, to be continued longitudinally. The study includes a baseline cohort of 11,500 youth enrolled in the study at 9-10 years of age and their parents/guardians, who will be followed with annual assessments for ten years.
Integrating pet ownership measures into the ABCD provides an opportunity for capitalizing on rigorous study design at the optimal stage of implementation, a population-representative sampling approach, and a measurement model specifically designed for understanding how environmental experiences influence social development and health. This study will provide high quality, high impact data that will significantly extend our understanding of the role of pet ownership in promoting developmental trajectories for youth and their families. These data will allow for understanding broad sociodemographic patterns of pet ownership, as well as causal relationships between pet ownership and trajectories of youth development. Integrating HAI measures into existing longitudinal infrastructure is a cost-effective method of obtaining the high-impact developmental data needed to increase methodological rigor in research on HAI and youth development.