Siblings versus dogs: who do we like better?

Thinking about getting another child? Don’t bother, just get a dog! According to one recent study, the relationship between a sibling and a pet seem to be quite similar; especially when looking at dog owners.

“Comparisons of early adolescents’ pet and sibling relationships revealed that participants were more satisfied with their pets, and engaged in less conflict with them than with their siblings,” says Cassels. “Dog owners reported both more Satisfaction and Companionship from their pets than owners of other animals.”

The chances are that you have a pet. About 74% of the Western households with a 10-year-old child also own a pet. Having a pet can be a good experience for children. It can aid them in their social and emotional development. It can also help them to get skills like empathy, responsibility and caretaking. Children can have strong emotional bonds with their pets. They find pets comforting and enjoyable. They miss their pets when they’re not there and when they feel upset they seek out their pets.

During adolescence, teens have a strong need to move away from their reliance on parents and siblings. They look for other attachment figures like romantic partners or friends. Adolescence can be a distressing time. A lot of psychological and behavioural problems set on in that period, like depression, anxiety or eating disorders. Having a good relationship with your sibling can decrease the chance of developing any of these problems. As a bonus, it also enhances social competence.

But what if you don’t have a sibling? Or what if the relationship you have with your sibling is not so good?

It is possible that pets can fulfil the role of giving social support. Cassels, White, Gee and Hughes (2017) decided to investigate the similarities and differences between adolescents’ relationship with their siblings and their pets. They developed a pet attachment scale that was adapted from a well-validated measure of human attachment, namely the Network of Relationship Inventory (NRI). They did not use all the scales of the test but instead focussed on the scales that measured horizontal aspects of the relationship. This means that there are no scales that measure the imbalances in power (e.g. a parent-child relationship would be a vertical relationship because of the difference in power).

In their sample were 77 children who were on average 12.14 years old and who had both a pet and a sibling. The children had to fill in the NRI about their sibling and about their pet. The adjusted version of the NRI had only four scales instead of the original 11. These were companionship, intimate disclosure, satisfaction and conflict.

To be able to check the validity of this scale, the children also had to fill in the Five Field Map. Children had to make circles on a map according to how close they felt to the person (or pet). Another alternative measure was the CENSHARE Pet Attachment Survey (PAS) and the Pet Attachment Scale (PAS-Parent). They consist of questions about the participants’ attachment to their pets answered by the participant or by their mother. They found by using exploratory factor analyses that the NRI was a reliable and valid test for pet relationships as well as sibling relationships.

The assessment of the NRI showed some interesting results. The researchers found differences between boys and girls in how they perceive their relationship with their pets. Girls reported more disclosure with their pets. This means they shared more with their pets than did boys. Girls also said they felt more companionship from their pets. Yet, they also engaged in more conflict with their pets than did boys.

Of course, the big comparison was: siblings versus pets. It seems that the children received more satisfaction from their relationships with their pets. They also had less conflict with their pets than with their siblings. This makes sense since pets can’t argue with you, while siblings can. The amount of companionship and disclosure was the same between pets and siblings.

However, because of the analyses method used and some significance values not being too big, the difference between gender should be viewed with caution. A repeated measures ANOVA and the Mann-Withney tests have some limitations and, as far as I can tell, the researchers did not use a restricted p-value to account for the fact that they did multiple tests.

In any case, it seems that sibling and pet relationships are quite similar. They are at least characterised by the same dimensions. There was especially a big overlap between the ratings dog owners gave their dog and their sibling.

There are different explanations for why adolescents’ turn to their pets. It is possible that adolescents’ with good sibling relationships also have good relationships with their pets. It is also possible that adolescents turn to their pets for alternative attachment if they have a poor sibling relationship. However, this study did not find evidence for either of these theories. It is still possible then that both are true as they would cancel each other out in the results.

Also, it seems more likely that boys and girls relate to their pets in different ways. Girls engaged in more disclosure with their pets. This is like the difference in human relationships where girls generally are more communicative than boys. An interesting finding was that girls have more conflict with their pet compared to boys. Especially since there was no gender difference in conflict with their siblings. So the explanation of girls being more communicative did not apply here. But again, it is possible that these gender differences are the result of a not strict enough p-value. It would be interesting to see if future research could give a more reliable answer.

Thus, there seems to be a lot of similarity between sibling and pet relationships. So it is possible that the positive outcomes that are linked to a strong sibling relationship, would also be true for a strong pet relationship.

Getting a pet is looking pretty good now, doesn’t it?

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