Infants Daily Experience with Pets and their Influence on Cognitive Development

Infants Daily Experience with Pets and their Influence on Cognitive Development

Many families with children have pets, and the potential effect on infant development is especially important during the first postnatal year, as this is the time for changes in the brain and cognitive function. The question arises then: does the presence of a companion dog or cat in the home influence an infant’s development?

There has been significant interest in the connection between experience with animals and development in childhood, but few studies have investigated the same impact that pets make on very young infants. One reason for this could be that because households without children tend to have high levels of pet ownership, people assume that families with infants are unlikely to have pets, which would mean fewer opportunities for pets to shape infant development. On a side note, it was observed that families with infants have dogs and cats at similar rates as those families with older children, therefore there is no reason to assume that infants have less exposure to pets than children at other stages of development. Another reason could be that research on the effect of pet experience on development has not focused on typical cognitive development such as the effect of languages, faces and categorization.

In the following research by Karinna Hurley and Lisa M. Oakes, two experiments were conducted:

  • The goal of Experiment 1 was to document the prevalence of pet ownership in families that had infants between 4 and 12 months of age. It was noted that 63% of families with infants under 12 months had at least one household pet.
  • In Experiment 2, research was conducted to assess the differences between infants who do and do not have pets, particularly in the way they processed animal faces. Infants visual exploration of images of dog, cat, monkey and sheep faces was examined at ages 4, 6 and 10 months of age. Although at the youngest ages infants with and without pets had the same visual patterns of inspection, by 10 months infants with pets spent proportionally more time looking at the regions of the faces that contained the eyes than infants without pets. This means that exposure to pets plays a role in how infants look at and learn about animal faces.

In the same way that infants ability to process faces is related to their experience with faces of a particular gender or race such as that of their parents, the same applies to their learning of animal faces. Not only do infants with or without pets differ in their amount of exposure to animals, but their experience with pets will likely differ in other ways due to the social nature of domesticated animals and the fact that pets are commonly considered family members.

The two experiments conducted provided valuable insights into the roles of companion dogs and cats on development in infancy. Experiment 1 revealed that more than half of the infants that were sampled lived with one or more pet. Experiment 2 revealed that between 4 and 10 months of age, exposure to a pet in the home was related to how that infant visually inspected images of animal faces. Whilst young infants both with and without pets responded in the same way to animal faces, by 10 months of age, infants with and without pets displayed different visual inspection patterns.

This highlights the fact that experience with pets seems to influence at least one aspect of their development.


The results of these experiments have reiterated the impact of animals in child development as well as the effect of experience on infants processing of visual stimuli.


Link to full original research article:

Front. Vet. Sci 10 July 2018

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