You Get Me

Why Teens Need A Pet — & Spoiler, It’s Not To Make Them More Responsible

The “emotional support animal” thing is real, say experts.

Pets not only provide emotional and mental boosts to teens, but they can also help them build invalu...
Rebecca Nelson/Getty Images

My son went into a deep depression during the brain-taxing pandemic. He stopped talking to his dad and me except for a few syllables a day. Conversations with friends were all happening online. But there was another creature in the house that he talked to, out loud and IRL: our cat.

If you're considering adopting a dog or becoming a cat parent and already have all the usual reasons in mind — your kid can learn to help care for the creature, you can give an animal a loving home — also look ahead to their teen years and understand that you're giving your child a much-needed soulmate.

Do kids really need “emotional support animals”?

The term "emotional support animal" is overused and has become a joke punchline now that all kinds of animals have shown up in airplane cabins under the umbrella phrase of "emotional support." But teens can (and do) lean on loved pets to ease anxiety and fears.

"Pets are vital, really, for propping people up when they are feeling down, and can be especially valuable for kids," says Colleen Lambo, DVM, Ph.D., a veterinarian with The Vets. "Studies have shown that petting a dog or cat can lower blood pressure and reduce stress hormones, which can help children feel more relaxed and at ease."

Paul DePompo, PsyD, a psychologist who regularly treats preteens and teens at his Newport Beach, California, practice, agrees. "A teen's mood and mental process can be positively impacted by pet ownership. Touch reduces stress hormones and creates a sense of calmness. The release of oxytocin (the bonding hormone) can soften your teens' angst and massage out more of their warmth that may be lurking beneath their stoic 'its all good' attitude."

Is it healthy if your kid’s bestie is a Westie?

In short: sure. While you may worry as a parent about your kid not having a human BFF, a teen's bond with a pet provides essential social interaction that can help them form other friendships, too. "Pets can help children develop social skills and build relationships with others. For example, taking a dog for a walk can be a great way for a child to meet new people and make friends," Lambo says. "Pets can also provide a shared interest that can bring children together, such as a love of dogs or cats."

That seems to be true for my son, who is able to strike up Discord friendships by sharing cat pictures and cat stories with other kids, even if they're on a gaming channel. DePompo sees the same. "Nowadays, teens have difficulty discussing hobbies outside of social media and gaming. Being a 'pet owner' can provide connection to others," DePompo says. It can also deepen a teen's self-esteem when they see themself as their pet's BFF.

If you have an anxious kid, is getting a pet a good idea?

"In general, introducing a pet to the family can be a wonderful way to provide emotional support and companionship to a child who is struggling with anxiety and depression," Lambo says. "However, it's important to carefully consider whether pet ownership is the right decision for your family."

Being a vet who sees plenty of families, she says to consider these points:

Can you afford a pet? You'll bring more angst into the family dynamic if the cost of food and vet care are going to strain you, so be sure there's a bit of extra room in the budget. From my personal experience, our cat has been a lot cheaper than my kid's therapist. It definitely helps if you adopt from a shelter or rescue organization that has already spayed or neutered the pet and given it a health clearance.

Do you have the time to be a pet parent? IMO, and this may be controversial, teens often do not have the bandwidth to reliably walk, groom, feed, and so on. Their attention to a pet's bathroom needs might be spotty. (My friend's daughter gets around to walking the dog when she wants to get away from her mom or talk to a friend out of her mom's earshot.) I have a 20-year-old with their own cat at college, and I have seen that kid become a super-responsible pet owner, ready to step up. But my high school kid leans on our home cat for love and turns a blind eye to the litter box, so actual care and feeding falls to me.

"For any parent under the illusion that getting your teen a pet will build responsibility — trust me that teens and pets up a parents' level of responsibility," DePompeo says. "An exception is if you've already taught your child significant day-to-day life chores and tasks. But if your child is not already handling many real household chores, pets will be a part of the responsibility-avoidance cycle."

Are you all on the same page about what pet to get? Even if a dog eases your preteen's anxiety, it might raise hell if someone else in the household is allergic, so don't take that lightly. (A life of living on antihistamines takes a toll!) That said, Lambo points out, "A dog may be a good choice if you're looking for a loyal companion and an active lifestyle, while a cat may be a better choice if you're looking for a low-maintenance pet. It is also important to research dog breeds carefully. If you live in an apartment or don't anticipate being able to spend hours exercising a pup each day, a high-energy or working-breed dog may be a poor fit."

Is it still worthwhile to get a pet if your kid will be moving out within five years?

Lambo thinks adopting a pet is still a sound move if your teen has already started hatching an escape plan. "The emotional benefits that come with pet ownership can be significant, even in the short term, and can help to improve a child's mental health and well-being," she says. Having a cat or dog on your lap can take the sting out of typing college essays.

As a college mom, I can also share that many of us "joke" that the kids only come home for their pets. (We secretly hope that's not true.) Meanwhile, wherever our kids go, "the memories of their time with their pet can provide comfort and support during times of stress or anxiety and remind them of the love and companionship they experienced," Lambo says.

Family pets also provide a way for parents of young adults to keep a solid connection. For a nice break from sending nagging texts, I send a short video of the cat sleeping on a pile of laundry. Often I even get a reply! Or at least a "heart," which I'll take any day.