Pets + Youth: The Case for Bringing Pets into Foster Youths’ Lives

Old Yeller. Lassie. Toto. Benji. Pet the Pup. Comet. What do all these pups have in common? They are famous childhood pets from some of our fondest movies, literature, and television shows. The image of a child and dog is a common, popular one, but have you ever wondered why? Recent studies have proven what animal lovers have long known as truth—the unwavering love, companionship, and presence of a pet provides tremendous psychological and physical benefits for children. Here at Walden, we couldn’t think of a better pair than a foster child, former foster youth, or adoptive child and a pet. In fact, children and youth recovering from trauma benefit greatly from emotional support or service animals in their journey towards healing.

We’ve extensively discussed the emotional healing foster and former foster youth must undergo to combat a past of trauma, abuse, abandonment, and/or neglect. One great therapeutic approach to helping children heal is to provide them with emotional support animals. These pets, whether dogs, cats, turtles, or birds, offer support and unwavering love that becomes a lifeline to children recovering from PTSD, anxiety, depression or other emotionally stressful conditions.

How do pets help foster children heal?

Current and former foster youth who have suffered from trauma often have a difficult time building and establishing trust, which often leads to further challenges in developing and maintaining loving, supportive relationships. Their past traumas often lead to difficulties in letting emotional guards down, and an inability to trust unconditional love offered by someone else, especially an adult. As a result, a number of these youths develop anxiety and depression, which adds more layers of stressful conditions to overcome.

With a pet these children are able to experience unconditional love, support, and companionship that allows them to rebuild and regain trust by forming a healthy and loving relationship. This child-pet relationship serves as a foundational learning and healing experience that children can build on and grow from in other relationships.

In addition to allowing foster and former foster youth to experience unconditional love and companionship, pets have been shown to increase oxytocin levels. Oxytocin helps reduce feelings of stress and anxiety by slowing down a person’s heart rate, lowering their blood pressure, and helping to block their production of stress hormones. Youth who have routinely been plagued with incidences of trauma and abuse have often been placed in environments that have increased their fight or flight stress hormones levels, forcing them to continually live with raised heart rates and blood pressure. Essentially, these youths’ bodies have existed for prolonged periods at heightened survival stress levels. Oxytocin helps them experience more feelings of peace and calm, increasing their capacity to feel happiness and joy, and allowing them to reset their bodies’ stress levels.

Experiencing companionship and increased feelings of joy isn’t all pets provide current and former foster youth. Pets also help children work through painful feelings of anger, resentment, unworthiness, apathy, and anxiety. Children who have the opportunity to care for an animal that is vulnerable and dependent on them are given the chance to experience and witness positive emotions and reactions from the animal, as well as view themselves as a caretaker. In a sense, great pets model great behavior to children while also teaching them kindness and service. Instead of anger and rage pets often display love and playfulness to their owner. Resentment is replaced by immense gratitude, as animals are almost always happy to shower affection onto their caretakers. Feelings of unworthiness, apathy, and anxiety are replaced by displays of companionship, feelings of purpose, and increased moods of joy and calmness.

At Walden we champion therapeutic ways to help our children and youth heal. We often state it only takes one adult to change the life of a child forever, but we also know pets and animals can have the same lasting and meaning impact. We look forward to continuing to share relevant ways to incorporate and honor the many ways pets and animals help current and former foster youth heal and recover from trauma, abuse, PTSD, and neglect. Join us in celebrating these meaning child and pet bonds.

To read more about the plight current and former foster youth face in healing, please see our past articles:

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) in Foster Youth

The 18th Year: Challenges for Youth Aging Out of Foster Care