Animal magic

New research suggests that keeping pets can work wonders with
looked-after children.

Anabel Unity Sale looks at the pros and cons of
building another species into the care package.

An old show business adage warns of the dangers of working with
children and animals. But there may be good reasons for social care
staff to combine the two.

A new guide from British Agencies for Adoption and Fostering
suggests that pets may be a valuable tool for helping traumatised
children to rebuild trusting relationships and develop positive
self-esteem. Promoting Resilience1 recommends that
children in the care system will, under some circumstances, benefit
from access to pets and other animals. It argues that the warmth
and trust they receive from animals “may prove healing gifts for
the child craving acceptance and affection”.

But for anyone horrified at the prospect of children keeping
snakes in their bedrooms, Robbie Gilligan, report author and
director of the Children’s Research Centre at Trinity College,
Dublin, can put their minds at rest. “I’m not recommending that
every child gets a pet as they pass through the doors of a foster
or care home. If it does happen, it has to be handled

But he does suggest that, when a child goes into care, whether
or not they have a pet or can have regular access to an animal
should be considered. He says: “In the past, people have not paid
enough attention to the fact that children come into care with
existing sets of relationships, and these might include pets. We
should not be rupturing these relationships.”

Gilligan says professionals working with children need to value
animals’ therapeutic potential, not only for their direct benefits
to the child’s state of mind, but also as a way of helping
professionals and carers to engage with the child. “The cost of an
animal should not be a luxury,” he argues. “It could be part of a
care package if required, and be supported within reason.”

One benefit for a child in care of having a pet, Gilligan says,
is the chance for them to take responsibility for a living thing –
something they may have been told they were incapable of. “An
animal gives them warmth, recognition and attention. They may be
more reliable, consistent and uncritical than some of the adults in
their lives,” he explains.

Pets can also act as an effective way of helping the child
connect with other children. BAAF’s report says: “Care of an animal
may introduce the child to a whole new set of peers who share a
similar bond to this type of animal – something that can be a
useful way of building a social network unrelated to their family
or care situation.” But Gilligan adds that there can be pitfalls to
strong bonds with animals. While most children are distraught at
the death of a much-loved pet, for children in care their
relationship with an animal can be of crucial importance. As a
result, death or illness of an animal companion requires extremely
sensitive handling.

June McNicholas, a lecturer in the University of Warwick’s
department of psychology, has studied how children interact with
their pets. Her research revealed that more than 90 per cent of the
primary school age children interviewed saw their pet as being in
their top 10 “most special relationships”.

“Animals are classed by children themselves as highly
significant relationships over members of their family who do not
live in their home,” she adds, “and even by children with large
social networks of humans.”

McNicholas says pets provide children with comfort and the
opportunity to confide. “Pets are the ones that children turn to
build their self-esteem. They are friends to share special secrets
with if they are not ready to talk to an adult.”

The reason behind this is simple: “For many children in
families, they are the lowest form of life because they are the
youngest. But they realise they rank higher than their pet and that
the animal has no authority over them.” She says that interacting
with a less sophisticated animal than themselves also helps develop
a child’s social skills and sense of empathy.

McNicholas would like to see research done into the practicality
of children in care retaining existing pets or gaining wider access
to animals. She completed a similar study, funded by the Joseph
Rowntree Foundation, looking at older people going into residential
care and their relationships with pets2. The research
proved influential – some care providers and councils are now
changing their policy and allowing new residents to keep their pets
with them.

Foster carers and residential care staff may shudder at the
thought of having to deal with animals, but there may be a downside
for some children, too.

Pauline Flavin is director of SACCS Leaps and Bounds residential
service, which looks after children between four and 12 years old.
She says: “Children here have been traumatised and see animals in a
different way from other people. They may have been abused in the
past with animals taking a role in that.”

Flavin also believes introducing animals to the kind of
traumatised children SACCS works with could be a risk to the
animals’ welfare, as they may not be properly looked after. “We see
children whose own needs are paramount and who would not be able to
give to a pet.”

A cage of gerbils, a guinea pig or a cat are privileges that
many children living with their families enjoy, and children in the
care system should be no different. The challenge for professionals
is making sure that the needs of the child, and of the animal, are

1 Robbie Gilligan, Promoting Resilience, British
Agencies for Adoption and Fostering, 2001

2 June McNicholas, “Pets and People in Residential
Care: Towards a Model of Good Practice”, Social Care Findings 44
Joseph Rowntree Foundation, 1994

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