Measuring the Social, Behavioral, and Academic Effects of Classroom Pets on Third and Fourth-Grade Students

McCullough, A.1, Ruehrdanz, A.1, Garthe, R.2, Hellman, C. 1, & O’Haire, M.3
1: American Humane Association, 2: University of Chicago, 3: Purdue University

Limited research has documented the benefits of animals for children’s learning and development, with a growing number of elementary school teachers incorporating pets into their classrooms. This study assessed the social, behavioral, and academic effects of the presence of small, resident classroom animals for third and fourth-grade students across the United States. A total of 591 students from 41 classrooms (pet cohort = 20; no pet cohort = 21) and 19 schools participated. Classroom animals included guinea pigs, fish, lizards, hamsters, toad, gerbil, turtle, and tortoise. Data were collected at three designated time points over one academic year: T1 = one month into the school year (pre-pet introduction); T2 = 12 weeks post-pet introduction; T3 = just prior to school year end (approximately 28- to 30 weeks post-pet introduction). Teachers and parents completed the Social Skills Improvement System Rating Scales (SSIS) and the Social Competence Inventory (SCI), and students completed the SSIS only. At T2 and T3, teachers in the pet cohort were surveyed also on how the pet was incorporated into their classroom over the previous three-month period. Overall findings suggest that there is a lack of agreement between reporters. Teachers reported significantly greater increases in social skills (p < .05), social competence (p < .05), and academic reading competence (p = .02), as well as significantly greater reductions in internalizing (p = .02) and hyperactivity/inattention behaviors (p = .01), among students in the intervention cohort as compared to those without a classroom pet. Intervention cohort parents reported significantly greater increases in prosocial behaviors (p < .05). There were no significant differences between cohorts found via student reports. These findings suggest that pets in the classroom may significantly benefit third and fourth-grade students’ social, behavioral, and academic development. However, the lack of consistent findings across groups indicates the need for further examination of these types of programs and their potential impact on students.

Keywords: children, classroom pets, human-animal interaction, problem behaviors, social functioning