Many of us cherish memories of our favorite pets and animal friends. Whether they were with us in our youth or they are with us now, their impact on our lives is the same. These memories stay with us forever because pet ownership is full of emotional weight, companionship, and deeply fulfilling experiences. Pet ownership is also an aspect of life that is full of lessons in emotional intelligence and can be a great way to approach the subject with young children. Before we explore the 5 emotional intelligence benefits of pets, I’d like to first make a case for why pets are emotionally intelligent in the first place and which pets make the best companions in this regard.
Are Animals Emotionally Intelligent?
Nobody truly knows what’s going on in the mind of our furry friends. We make all kinds of assumptions and project emotions and motives onto their actions, but the truth is we can’t get into their heads. The good news is that we do have a deep wealth of research on their motives and behaviors and the overwhelming conclusion points to dogs especially being highly emotionally intelligent. From Crown Vets:
“Researchers found that a dog was more likely to approach someone who was crying than someone who was singing or talking. Furthermore, they found that dogs responded to someone crying with gentle, submissive behaviour. Dogs do intuitively seem to try to placate a person who is upset. What is more, it has been found that dogs will approach anyone who is upset the same way, regardless of whether that person is their owner or not. Scientists say that this study…clearly shows that dogs can identify and recognise sadness as an emotion that is different from other feelings.”
This evidence shows clearly that dogs have an innate ability to recognize emotions, one of the core pillars of emotional intelligence. The fact that they respond the same way to strong emotions from people who are not their owners points to this intelligence being innate. Furthermore, the value of emotional support animals gives us a wealth of context for the emotional capabilities of animals. From that same article:
“We know that dogs working as assistance pets can be intuitive enough to know when their master needs help. For example, assistance dogs for autistic children give the parent and child a new found independence by helping the child remain calm and focused. A fully trained autism assistance dog can help change the child’s behaviour by introducing safe routines and by interrupting repetitive behaviour, helping them cope better with their surroundings in and outside of their home. They provide a controlled, safer environment for the child allowing them to feel more secure and have transformed the lives of families affected by autism. Also, Therapet assistance dogs provide a comfort to many by visiting the sick and infirm in hospitals, hospices and care homes. Recently, universities worldwide are turning to therapy dogs to relieve their students’ pre-exam nerves and first-term homesickness by providing them with a sympathetic canine friend.”
What amazing displays of care and therapeutic behavior! Emotional support animals have been around for a long time, but it’s only recently that we’ve been able to study and identify exactly why they make such a positive impact. The emotional bond between people and animals can be as strong, if not stronger, than the bond between humans and similar psychological benefits can be expected from these deeply fulfilling relationships. But this line of thought raises another interesting question; which pet is best for teaching emotional intelligence?
Most Emotionally Intelligent Pets
Grading the intelligence of any animal can be tricky, as intelligence itself can look different across the animal spectrum (how do you compare the more socialized intelligence of a colony of ants with the singular intelligence of an African Grey Parrot?) But when comparing various pet options, there are a few animals that stand out above the rest in terms of emotional intelligence and accessibility. As per the earlier quote, dogs are one of the best options due to their strong loyalty, emotional expression, emotional recognition, and relatively easy care requirements.
Cats are also a frequent option for both household pets and emotional support animals. While cats’ behavior can be a bit more mercurial, the right cat can be as, if not more, emotionally intelligent than a dog. But surprisingly, the animal with the most emotional intelligence, according to Psychology Today, is the rat! Some of us may shriek at the sight of a rat, but household pet rats can actually be a great friend for adults and children alike. Rats laugh, enjoy being tickled, can read pain on the faces of other rats, and display empathy. Pretty amazing for an often underrated and unrecognized animal!
Emotional support animals come in all shapes and sizes and could be the difference maker for a child, especially one with emotional difficulties or needs. When choosing the right one, make sure the child is involved in the decision making along with the professional advice. After all, this is going to be your child’s companion first and foremost.
5 Emotional Intelligence Benefits of Pets
Now that we have the facts, let’s take a look at the emotional intelligence benefits of pets.
- Teaches responsibility/self-esteem: how often do kids get to be in charge, especially with a life at stake? Pet ownership teaches kids to be responsible for something they love by requiring care and attention. The responsibility of taking care of a creature means successfully completing daily pet tasks. When kids begin to connect with their new pet and see these daily chores pay off, it builds their sense of self-esteem and accomplishment.
- Facilitates communication skills: Some kids struggle with communication and others are open to it right away. Most pets are ideal conversation starters, but they also naturally have a way of opening people up. Kids who are more reserved or who struggle to open up can especially benefit from having that alone time with their animal friend to bond with and safely discuss whatever they want.
- Reduces stress: One of the many benefits of pets is they are a great outlet for stressful emotions. They provide wonderful reprieves from our busy, stressful days. Going for a long walk with the dog or getting away to pet a cat can both be exactly what we need after a tough day. Additionally, these moments offer us an opportunity to get away from screens. For those who are screen addicted or overloaded, a pet can serve as a great distraction.
- Teaches compassion: Empathy is learned, not taught. When a child sees the immediate impact of their actions on their pet, they will begin to understand how their actions can have consequences both positive and negative, on the lives of others.
- Confronting death: This is a big one and one that I think sticks in the mind of everyone who’s ever had a beloved pet pass away. Death is an unavoidable part of life that constantly reminds us how fragile our placement here on this Earth truly is. When death impacts our childhood, it is particularly memorable and can truly impact our mental development for years later.
I hope this list has shown you the many reasons why pet ownership is a great way to enhance emotional intelligence growth. Let me know what your experiences with pets are in the comments below. Have they taught you anything in your lifetime or helped to make you more emotionally intelligent? There are so many benefits of pets and things they can teach us, but it’s up to parents to supervise these interactions as not every child can handle being in charge of a living being. But sometimes a pet friend or an emotional support animal could end up being your child’s best friend in the world!