Too cool for school - can pets make good study buddies?

New review paper shows pets can make good classmates, but more evidence is needed to show real benefits

Human Animal Interaction

Young people are often sagely advised that their schooldays are the “best days of their life”, but could they be made even better by the addition of a non-human classmate? In some schools, along with computers, pencils and textbooks you may see a furry face, wiry whiskers or a wagging tail. Increasingly, pets are taking on a role in the classroom with claims that they help pupils concentrate on their work, reduce stress and promote better focus on the teacher. But how strong is the evidence for the benefits of these “animal-assisted interventions”? A recent review by WALTHAM and the University of Lincoln scrutinised the body of research in this area to find out.

Rigorous review

Research papers included in the review had to meet a strict set of criteria, which saw the team whittle their 841 initial articles down to 25. The final set focused on pets including dogs, rabbits and guinea pigs in classroom settings at nurseries and schools. “The review revealed a wide variation in quality of the science” explained Dr Nancy Gee, Human-Animal Interaction Research Manager at WALTHAM. “Most studies reported significant benefits of animal-assisted interventions in school settings. For example, in a survey of over 1400 teachers, many felt that they had observed improvements in attention, motivation, mood and wellbeing when animals are present in the classroom”. She went on to point out, however, that studies vary greatly in methods and design, such as the type of intervention, how improvements are measured, the number of animals or children involved, and the length of time the animal is in the classroom. This makes it difficult to draw conclusions or make comparisons of potential beneficial effects across studies. It was found that there was often a worrying lack of reference to animal welfare – what is the impact on the pet and are their needs being met whilst they are in a school?

More research needed

The results of this review show promising findings and some evidence to suggest there are potential benefits to having animals in schools. However, the review also highlights the need for more high-quality research into these animal-assisted interventions, and advises that future studies must follow stringent and consistent research protocols to ensure they provide conclusive evidence. The review further emphasises the need for safeguarding both the people and the pets involved, as both animal welfare and human safety are paramount.
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